U.S. Religious Freedom Body Split Over Blacklisting Iraq

A U.S. religious freedom watchdog said it is still deliberating whether to downgrade Iraq to the blacklist of violators during the release of its 2008 annual report on Friday.

Officials of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) confided that its members are divided over keeping Iraq on its "watchlist" or moving it to the "Country of Particular Concern" blacklist, according to Agence France-Presse.

Included on the CPC list are governments that have "engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious" violations of religious freedom or belief, and includes countries such as North Korea and Iran.

If the State Department agrees with USCIRF and blacklists a country, it could result in Washington imposing sanctions on the religious freedom violator.

"There is some contention, the debate is whether it should go up or down," one official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Unlike other CPC countries, the Iraq government is considered a Washington ally and putting it on the blacklist would be an embarrassment to the Bush administration.

In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that accompanied the report, USCIRF wrote that it was "seriously concerned" about religious freedom in Iraq, where increased persecution of Christians has been reported.

The commission also told Rice that it would visit Iraq later this month to study the situation further, after which it will make an "appropriate designation."

Currently, the 338-page report is missing the entire Iraq chapter.

Since 2004, some 40 Christian churches and institutions have been bombed, with about 10 of them bombed within a span of two weeks earlier this year, according to the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council of America. Moreover, of the 45 Chaldean priests in Baghdad, less than half remain and the others have been killed, kidnapped or have fled the country.

"Just speaking for myself, I am particularly concerned by the fact that the religious minorities, the defenseless minorities – those without the militias – are being pushed out of Iraq," commissioner Nina Shea said to AFP.

According to estimates, Christians make up nearly 40 percent of the refugees fleeing Iraq, although they only make up three percent of the country's population. There are now about 600,000 Iraqi Christians left in Iraq, down from 1.2 million before the U.S.-led offensive in 2003.

Besides the possibility of Iraq being named a CPC, the commission also recommended to Rice to return Vietnam to the blacklist, as well as Pakistan and Turkistan.

The State Department's latest CPC list includes North Korea, China, Iran, Myanmar, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

Vietnam, the commission argued, continues to imprison and detain dozens of individuals promoting religious freedom in the communist state. The former war enemy of the United States was removed from the list in November 2006 ahead of President George W. Bush's visit to Vietnam.

But the State Department said the Vietnamese government has taken measures to address U.S. concerns and "does not merit" to be included in the CPC list, according to AFP.
Department spokesman, Tom Casey, however, did admit there were still "a number of issues" on religious freedom in the southeast Asia country.

The commission's 2008 watchlist meanwhile includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

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