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World: Religious Freedom Lacking Around Globe

The U.S. State Department released its first annual report on the state of international religious freedom during a special briefing Thursday. Top department officials said the U.S. commitment to religious liberty is even more than the expression of American ideals -- it is, they said, a fundamental source of U.S. strength in the world. RFE/RL correspondent Lisa McAdams reports:

Washington, 10 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has reaffirmed its commitment to international religious freedom, saying that much of the world's population lives in countries in which that right is restricted or prohibited.

The State Department, in releasing to Congress its first ever annual report on international religious freedom, said there is a clear gap between word and deed. It added that while the vast majority of the world's governments have committed themselves to respect religious freedom, there remains in some countries a substantial difference between promise and practice.

Harold Hongju Koh -- the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor -- told reporters at a special State Department briefing in Washington on Thursday that religious freedom was a universally recognized human right. He said Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for everyone's right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Koh adds this right includes freedom to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

"Religious freedom not only embodies the golden rule, but also serves as the basis for many conceptions of both human conscience and human consciousness. The right to believe or not to believe as one's own conscience dictates is a central component of every major faith tradition, and is inherent in the dignity of every human being. No government can legitimately deny this right, no matter what the justification. Moreover, when we promote religious freedom, we promote all human rights."

Koh noted that in order to strengthen the commitment to international religious freedom and to help draw attention to violations, President Bill Clinton signed into law last October the International Religious Freedom Act. Koh said the Act strengthens what he called the United States' "strong" commitment to advancing religious freedom throughout the world. Among other provisions, Koh said the Act mandates an annual report on international religious freedom, of which this is the first.

He said the more than 1000 page report took tens-of-thousands of hours of data collection, on the ground observation, and challenging analysis of nearly 200 countries.

The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Robert Seiple, also briefed reporters. He said the release of the report was but "one small, measured step." Of greater importance, Seiple said, was the message contained within.

"There is something very important we can not afford to lose in the pages of such a large report. It is the fate of millions of people throughout the world who are suffering because of their religious faith. People who fear to speak of what they believe. People in prisons because of how they worship. People tortured because of whom they worship. Children stolen from their parents, sold into slavery, and forcibly converted to another religion."

As Seiple put it, "suffering has a face." As such, he said, the goal of the report is to create a comprehensive record of the state of religious freedom around the world and to help those persecuted. Seiple noted that the report clearly shows that violations of religious freedom, including religious persecution, are not confined to any one country, religion, region, or nationality.

RFE/RL reports that the release singled out Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran and Iraq for totalitarian or authoritarian attempts to control religious belief or practice.

The report was also critical of Russia and Turkey for what it called "discriminatory" legislation or policies disadvantaging certain religions.

Pakistan, Serbia and Sudan were described as fostering state hostility toward minority or non-approved religious groups. And Indonesia was cited for state neglect of discrimination against, or persecution of, minority or non-approved religions.

These countries are but a small group of the nearly 200 countries reviewed in the report, and according to State Department officials, in no way means they are among the most egregious offenders.

Seiple, asked whether sanctions could or would be imposed as a result of the report's findings, had this to say:

"The act itself was never conceived primarily to be a sanctions act. Sanctions are a last resort, and the sanction portion of this act is a very nuanced, a very sophisticated approach. It is essentially a menus approach, 15 different sanctions, anywhere from a private demarche to withdrawal of economic aid. And the provision allows the secretary a great deal of flexibility and latitude."

The report, which aims to help those persecuted because of their faith, covers the period from January 1, 1998 to June 30th of this year. Seiple said that at the end of the day, there are no good reasons for any government to violate religious freedom, or to tolerate those within its warrant who do. However, he said there are many good reasons to promote religious freedom. Chief among them, he said, is that by preserving religious freedom one reaffirms and defends the very core of human rights.