Published: 13:00 GMT Daylight Time - Tuesday 04 October 2011
Country/Region: United States
The US State Department has been criticised for “glaring omissions” in its latest list of countries designated as severe violators of religious freedom.
In its Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, the State Department re-designated eight “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) – Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan – the same as listed last year.
The term is applied to any country in which the government has "engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom". The US International Religious Freedom Act (1998) requires the US government to take specific actions, including economic sanctions and diplomatic protests, against CPCs.
CPC recommendations are made by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan body. It raised concerns that no new countries were added this year.
Chairman Leonard Leo said the current list “continues glaring omissions” and called for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to consider the six additional countries recommended for designation. These were Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
Pakistan was omitted despite recognition in the State Department’s report that the country’s laws restrict religious freedom and that the government enforced these restrictions, and also that investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of extremist attacks on minorities are rare.
The Pakistani government’s measures to improve religious freedom were noted, including the creation of a Ministry of National Harmony, which was set up after the assassination of two politicians, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who opposed the “blasphemy laws”.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used against Christians and other non-Muslim minorities; Christian mother Aasia Bibi is currently on death row in Pakistan, having been falsely accused of defiling the name of Muhammad.
The USCIRF has recommended Egypt as a CPC for the first time in light of increasing attacks on Christians since the revolution and failure of the government to take action. Mr Leo said:
Instances of severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically. Since President Mubarak’s resignation from office in February, such violence continues unabated without the government’s bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Egyptian Christians are concerned that religious freedom will deteriorate further if Islamist parties emerge victorious in the country’s forthcoming parliamentary elections.
The latest State Department report comes as the future of the USCIRF, which was created 13 years ago to promote religious freedom overseas, is under threat. It has been criticised for what some see as a disproportionate focus on the persecution of Christians globally, while others feel that it causes confusion overseas as to whether or not it speaks for the White House, and has too little accountability.
It needs to be re-authorised by the Senate, and whether or not this will happen remains unclear. If the USCIRF is retained, it will have to operate with a reduced budget and a reduction in the number of commissioners from nine to five.
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