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World: U.S. Agency Criticizes Religious Rights Abuses Around The World

  • Jeffrey Donovan

An independent U.S. government agency on international religious freedom is denouncing countries around the world for violating the right to worship. But as RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the agency is also criticizing Washington for making compromises with autocratic states that support its war on terrorism.

Washington, 14 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. federal agency promoting religious freedom is singling out Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia as major abusers of religious rights, which it says are endangered in Russia and Belarus as well.

In its annual report, released yesterday, the independent and bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also expressed dismay that Washington has not designated several autocratic states as "countries of particular concern" on religious freedom.

In the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the Bush administration improved ties with many autocratic countries, such as Uzbekistan and Pakistan, in exchange for help in counterterrorism.

Washington denies that its improved relations has diminished its focus on those countries' noted human rights abuses. But commission chief Felice D. Gaer told a briefing that the agency believes America has compromised itself.

"If there has been one concept that has characterized this commission, it has been the awareness and the conviction that terrorist attacks do not justify a trade-off of U.S. policy on human rights and religious freedom in exchange for cooperation in counterterrorism efforts."

Following recommendations last year by the commission -- which is an official adviser body to Congress and the White House -- China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Burma were reclassified as countries of particular concern last March. The designation enables the U.S. government to explore ways in which it can pressure them to change.

In its latest report, the commission says it is "deeply disappointed" that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell did not also give that designation to India, Laos, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

It said the commission has put several countries on a "watch list" where violations of religious freedom are tolerated. These include Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Uzbekistan, which the commission urges the U.S. State Department to continue to monitor for further violations.

Among U.S. allies, the commission said Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are among the most worrisome examples of religious rights violators.

Although Kabul has a U.S.-supported government in the wake of the war to oust the Taliban, the commission says Washington risks losing the peace in Afghanistan, where repressive factional commanders and warlords continue to hold sway outside the capital.

Commissioner Leila Nadya Sadat expressed concern that the Taliban's old Ministry of Virtue, which once used torture and execution to enforce the government's interpretation of Islamic or Sharia law, has been reconstituted in a "gentler guise."

Sadat added that some Afghan judges have endorsed torture and amputation against non-Muslims:

"The groundwork is potentially being laid in Afghanistan for a regime that may become almost as oppressive as the Taliban was, particularly with regard to religious freedom. This is occurring, we believe, with the consent and in some cases, even assistance, from the United States government."

The commission recommends that the Bush administration work to improve security in Afghanistan by supporting an expanded role outside Kabul for international peacekeepers. It is also urging Washington to ensure that human rights are fully guaranteed in Afghanistan's new constitution, and that judicial reforms are carried out.

Afghanistan appeared to most closely resemble Saudi Arabia, where commission Vice Chairman Michael Young urges the U.S. to take its longtime ally to task. Young says religious freedom does not exist at all in Saudi Arabia, which allows only the practice of its Wahhabi brand of Islam.

Young said Riyadh is guilty of a variety of religious rights violations.

"They include a virtually complete prohibition in establishing non-Wahhabi places of worship and the public expression of non-Wahhabi religions [and] the detention, imprisonment, and torture of Shi'a clerics and Christian foreign workers for expressing their religious views or worshiping in private. The interpretation or enforcement of religious laws in Saudi Arabia affects every aspect of women's lives and results in serious violations of their human rights as well."

As for Russia, the commission said that while it certainly cannot be lumped together with Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, Moscow is backsliding on its commitment to ensure religious freedom despite great progress since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Commissioner Firuz Kazemzadeh said Catholics, Jews, and Protestants are clearly being discriminated against, despite the fact that Russia's post-Soviet constitution enshrines the right of religious freedom.

"There has been a tendency on the part of the government to reach a kind of compromise with the Orthodox Church, giving a primacy in the religious field to the Orthodox Church at the expense of other religions," he said. "There have been statements made about other religions, particularly about the Muslims, that put the whole Muslim community in danger of discrimination, which has occurred on many occasions."

The commission urges Washington to raise concern about the growing influence of what it called "undemocratic forces" on Russian government policies, and to oppose attempts to roll back religious freedom.

It also recommends that the U.S. government take steps to help protect religious minorities in Russia and to continue to support forces that advance democracy and human rights.

As for Belarus, which has what it calls "a highly authoritarian government," the commission is urging Washington to use "every measure of diplomacy to advance the protection of human rights, including religious freedom."

The commission, which sent a delegation to Minsk last January, is calling for better monitoring of religious rights abuses in Belarus. A law was passed in Belarus last year that severely restricts the freedom of worship and has been called Europe's most repressive religion law.