(Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Malik)
The State Department under President Obama issued its first “countries of particular concern” list Tuesday, maintaining the eight countries that were previously highlighted for egregious violation against religious freedom.
Burma, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Eritrea, Iran, the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan were again designated as CPCs.
Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said that while his group welcomes the CPC designations by the Obama administration, it “is concerned that no new countries were added to the list.”
“Repeating the current list continues glaring omissions, such as Pakistan and Vietnam. Since CPC designations can be made at any time, we respectfully urge Secretary Clinton to consider the six additional countries we recommended for designation.”
USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan federal government commission that serves as a watchdog group on international religious freedom, had recommended the State Department also label Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as CPCs.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday affirmed that protection of religious freedom continues to be a fundamental concern of the United States today at the release of the 13th Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
Without religious tolerance and freedom, countries could not achieve peace, security, and stability, which thereby fueled hatred and acts of violence, she said.
“It is our core conviction that religious tolerance is one of the essential elements not only of a sustainable democracy but of a peaceful society that respects the rights and dignity of each individual,” Clinton shared.
“People who have a voice in how they are governed – no matter what their identity or ethnicity or religion – are more likely to have a stake in both their government’s and their society’s success. That is good for stability, for American national security, and for global security.”
The Annual Report, submitted every year to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, documented major developments with respect to religious freedom in 198 countries and territories.
“Shining a spotlight on violations of religious freedom around the world...is one of our goals in releasing this report,” the Secretary of State announced.
Although the report usually covered a period of one year, the current report only spanned a six-month period because the State Department was implementing new changes to the reporting cycle. Next year’s Report would cover all of 2011 and would shift to a calendar year reporting period.
In this year’s report, Clinton highlighted several governments that continued to deny their people religious freedoms. Countries like Iran, China, and Eritrea repeatedly violated religious freedoms, which were “the most fundamental human rights.”
“In Iran, authorities continue to repress Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, Jews, Bahais, Sunnis, Ahmadis, and others who do not share the government’s religious views,” Clinton revealed. “In China, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, ‘house church’ Christians all suffer from government attempts to restrict their religious practices.”
And in Eritrea, last year a 43-year-old evangelical Christian died in prison after being tortured for 18 months and denied treatment for malaria for refusing to renounce his faith.
Governments, however, were not the only threat to the free exercise of religion. Citizens and residents were also restricting religious rights as well.
“In the Middle East and North Africa, the transitions to democracy have inspired the world, but they have also exposed ethnic and religious minorities to new dangers. People have been killed by their own neighbors because of their ethnicity or their faith. In other places, we’ve seen governments stand by while sectarian violence, inflamed by religious animosities, tears communities apart.”
The people of the region have taken exciting first steps towards democracy – but if they hope to consolidate their gains, they cannot trade one form of repression for another, Clinton stressed.
Although several countries continued to limit the freedoms “enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” as quoted by Suzan Cook, the newly appointed Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, some governments were praised for taking steps to improve religious tolerance in their country.
The Turkish Government, for example, issued a decree in August that allowed non-Muslims to reclaim churches and synagogues that were confiscated 75 years ago.
“Religious freedom must be protected by law and embraced by society,” Cook remarked. “We publish this report in tumultuous times that underscore the importance of freedom of religion to peaceful political and economic development, democratic institutions, and flourishing societies.”
“In short, repression of religious freedom runs contrary to shared universal values and undermines genuine stability. For these reasons, the United States’ commitment to promoting, defending, and protecting religious freedom across the globe is an essential element of both our global commitment to protect human rights and our strategy for promoting national security,” Cook added.
Both Clinton and Cook spoke in the wake of the recent Taliban attacks targeting the U.S. Embassy and NATO’s headquarters in Kabul.
Clinton took time to address the situation in Afghanistan as well.
“We will take all steps necessary not only to ensure the safety of our people, but to secure the area and to ensure that those who perpetrated this attack are dealt with.”
She also added a few words about the civilians who served at the embassy.
“It is, of course, State Department diplomats, USAID development experts, but it’s a whole-of-government effort, and there are civilians from across our government who are there with the sole purpose of assisting the people of Afghanistan in a transition toward stability, security, and prosperity.”
They will not be intimidated by this kind of cowardly attack, Clinton stated.
“While they work hard every day along with their Afghan colleagues to help children go to school, to help save mothers’ lives at childbirth, to build roads, to assist farmers, the opposition of violent extremists, the Taliban and their allies, engage in a constant effort to threaten and to undermine the peace and progress of the Afghan people.”
“So we will be vigilant, but we will be continuing with even greater commitment to doing all we can to give the Afghan people, who have suffered so much, a chance at a better future for themselves and their children.”
Clinton also addressed the recent news of the potential release of two U.S. hikers jailed for walking across an unmarked border in Iran.
President Ahmadinejad had revealed in interviews with U.S. media organizations that Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal would be allowed to return home in the next few days after they were detained in 2009.
“We are encouraged by what the Iranian Government has said today, but I am not going to comment further than that. We obviously hope that we will see a positive outcome from what appears to be a decision by the government.”
The 13th Annual Report on International Religious Freedom is a public document available online at State.gov and HumanRights.gov.
The report contains an introduction, executive summary, and a chapter describing the status of religious freedom in each of the 198 countries throughout the world.
“Governments have a moral responsibility to speak out and condemn intolerance, and a duty to ensure the right of all individuals to freely express their faith. Governments also have an obligation to promote and protect freedom of expression, which fundamentally undergirds our freedom to worship and manifest our belief,” Cook shared.
“We hope this report will help achieve these goals by spreading awareness of religious violence around the world and providing insight into the many benefits of defending the universal right to religious freedom.”