The U.S. State Department's second annual report on International Religious Freedom says that on balance, the year-old U.S. strategy for promoting religious freedom worldwide has had a promising start. But as RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports, U.S. officials are urging leaders to take a long-term view.
Washington, 6 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says much of the 2nd annual International Religious Freedom Report, released to Congress yesterday (Tuesday), makes for "grim reading."
"The sad truth is that religious intolerance remains far too common in far too many places." The year 2000 report, which will be used as a resource for shaping policy, conducting diplomacy, and making U.S. assistance and training allocations, covers the period from July 1, 1999 to June 30, 2000 in 194 countries.
Albright made her comments in New York where she is attending the United Nations Millennium Summit. She said if there is one core assumption underlying the report, it is that religions -- like human beings -- are worthy of respect.
In the report, the United States expressed alarm about religious intolerance throughout Central Asia, as well as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Belarus, and Russia.
The report also targets governments deemed guilty of controlling religions by designating them as hostile or security threats. In predominantly Shiia Muslim Iran, for example, the State Department charges that Jewish, Christian, and Sunni Muslim communities face harassment and imprisonment.
Ambassador Robert Seiple has served as the first ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom since May of last year. Addressing reporters (in New York) Tuesday, Seiple rejected a reporter's criticism that Iran went virtually unscathed for its violations of religious persecution this year, including a high-profile spy trial of 13 ethnic Iranian Jews:
"Iran has not gotten by at all...we looked at how they treated the Bahais, primarily this is state-supported, this is more than discrimination -- this is persecution -- and the report spells that out."
Saddam Hussein's Iraq, meantime, is accused of a "brutal campaign of murder, summary execution, and protracted arbitrary detention against the religious leaders and adherents of the majority Shiia Muslim population.
A similar accusation was leveled at Afghanistan, where Taliban leaders were reported to sponsor weekly public executions, floggings, and amputations against people who broke strict Sharia laws.
Seiple also was asked to address long-standing U.S. concerns about a "restrictive" law on religions in Russia, which is said to create a hierarchy of faiths. Seiple said the U.S. had hoped Russia would stay with the 1990 legislation, but chose to make a change in 1997 -- a change Seiple called "a giant step backward."
"We see an ambiguous, unpredictable, non-transparent, and unevenly implemented piece of legislation in the midst of a country that has gone through major, major changes and continues to go through economic and political changes of some magnitude. So, we are very concerned by what is going on in Russia."
Seiple adds that the U.S. has since put into place what he calls accountability tools with regard to Russia, and he says the U.S. will continue to monitor the situation.
Uzbekistan's government was cited in the report for continuing a harsh campaign against unauthorized Islamic groups, often failing to distinguish between Islamic terrorist groups that seek to overthrow the government by force and other devout Islamic groups, often part of the political opposition.
Turkmenistan's government was said to have placed significant limits on freedom of religion and religious organizations by requiring that religious groups have 500 members before being registered with the government.
And in Serbia, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was cited for continued exploitation of ethnic, religious, and political divisions to maintain his rule. In Serbia's sister Republic of Montenegro, tensions between the ecclesiastically unofficial Serbian Orthodox Church "worsened" and were politicized by the opposing political factions.
On a more positive note, the report said Azerbaijan was one of two countries cited for having made "significant" improvements in religious freedom, in what U.S. officials say remains an otherwise poor human rights record.
The reports say that until late fall of last year, the Azerbaijani government and local law enforcement officials frequently used the law on Religious Freedom and other laws to restrict religious activity by foreigners and non-traditional religious groups.
For example, it says police and security officials detained, imprisoned and beat clergy, threatened to deport foreign religious workers, and used the forum of an assembly at a state factory publicly to humiliate and fire workers of a non-traditional religion.
But Ambassador Seiple said the U.S. government and the international community called this situation to the attention of President Heidar Aliyev and other high-level Azerbaijani officials, who held consultations before publicly pledging to take action:
"(Aliev) liberated the registration process and the visa process for (religious) people coming into the country. Now, that's a major, major happening in a country that essentially is less than a decade old."
Seiple says deportation orders and other charges against the clergy and groups of religious minorities have since been overturned. He also says many religious groups in Azerbaijan have been allowed to register for the first time and that the factory workers were reinstated in their jobs.
Iran, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine also were cited for having made "noteworthy" improvements in respect for religious freedom. The full text of the 2nd Annual International Religious Freedom Report can be found on the Internet at http://www.state.gov