Washington, 9 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The State Department’s survey of 197 countries cited dozens of states that it said failed to observe international norms for religious freedom. The report covered the period from July 2004 to July 2005. Like last year, the focus was on eight states designated as "countries of particular concern."
"We have redesignated eight countries of particular concern -- Burma, China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Vietnam," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in announcing the report yesterday. "These are countries where governments have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom over the past year. We are committed to seeing improvements in each of those countries."
An act of the U.S. Congress obligates the government to make such designations. The secretary of state can choose a number of steps, including diplomatic pressure and sanctions, to seek to improve religious freedoms in states of most concern.
The chief of the U.S. State Department’s religious freedoms office, John Hanford, told reporters that Washington has had success in engaging some of the countries on the list, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. But he said it has been more difficult to move other states. "Some of these countries have not been willing to engage on any meaningful way on religious matters," he added. "Burma, Iran, and North Korea fall into this category, as does Eritrea."
The report said Iran’s government engaged in particularly severe violations against religious minorities. Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, and Christians reported imprisonment, harassment, and intimidation based on their religious beliefs.
The United States has no formal relations with Tehran, but will continue to work through international bodies to try to pressure Iran, according to the report.
Hours before the U.S. report was issued, Canada presented a resolution to the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee critical of Iran. The Canadian resolution calls for improvements in Iran’s treatment of religious minorities and on many other rights issues.
The U.S. report listed Uzbekistan among a small number of states "hostile to minority or nonapproved religions." Hanford said Uzbekistan’s law on religion violates international norms and conventions and is used against both Muslims and Christians.
"In thousands of cases, authorities have asserted membership in banned political organizations that encourage terrorism based solely on outward expression by Muslims of their devout beliefs," Hanford said. "The government has also made false assertions of membership in extremist organizations as a pretext for repressing the innocent expression of religious belief."
A panel which makes recommendations to the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in May had sought to designate Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as "countries of particular concern."
The State Department demurred. And though Uzbekistan and Pakistan were cited for violations, Turkmenistan was listed among the countries making significant improvements in religious freedoms. Hanford said Turkmenistan has taken a number of important steps in the past year.
"In Turkmenistan, where serious violations of religious freedom persist, we saw hopeful signs with the streamlining of legislative procedures and the registration of a number of new religious groups. Last year, the government substantially revamped laws regulating religious activities. They decriminalized violations of religious policies. They released all religious prisoners," Hanford said.
A group of human rights organizations in September presented a detailed description of religious repression in Turkmenistan and urged the State Department to designate it a "country of particular concern."
A prominent human rights watchdog in the U.S. Congress, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, said he was troubled by the positive assessment of Turkmenistan’s record. Smith said his human rights subcommittee would hold a hearing on the report on 15 November.
The State Department report also cited Georgia for significant improvements. It said, for example, that attacks on religious minorities decreased in the past year. It noted the arrest of Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili and several associates who had instigated religiously motivated violence.
The report also said Russia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus were among countries that had discriminatory legislation or policies prejudicial to certain religions.