State Department Report Signals Importance of Religious Freedom

21 December 2006

By Michelle Austein
USINFO Staff Writer

Vietnamese seminarians line up during ceremonies at the Catholic Church of Hanoi in Vietnam November 19. While restrictions remain, harassment has eased enough that the United States decided this week to remove Vietnam from a list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. (© AP Images)

Vietnamese seminarians

Vietnamese seminarians line up during ceremonies at the Catholic Church of Hanoi in Vietnam. (© AP Images)

Washington – Religious freedom is deeply rooted in American principles and history, according to Stephen Liston, director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. The department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report is one of the most visible signals to both persecutor and persecuted of the importance the United States attaches to religious freedom, Liston said December 21.

Liston and other officials discussed the report’s 2006 findings at a hearing before the House International Relations Committee. The annual review submitted to Congress, required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, examines 197 countries’ commitment to advancing religious freedom. (See related article.)

The act also requires the State Department to designate countries that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom” as a “country of particular concern” (CPC). In November, Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan again were designated as CPCs, having also been on the 2005 list. Uzbekistan also was listed as a CPC. (See related article.)

Additionally in November, Vietnam was removed from the CPC list, which is the first time that a country has been removed from the list due to sufficient progress made as a result of diplomatic engagement, Liston said. “We view this as a very important milestone,” he said. “The decision not to re-designate Vietnam is an important signal that our purpose is to improve conditions for religious believers, and that we will recognize progress when it occurs.”

During the last two years, Liston said, the Vietnamese government has allowed hundreds of congregations to register, legalized hundreds of meeting places, allowed training of new clergy and released prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs. The United States hopes that Vietnam’s progress will be a model for other nations, Liston said.

 

Uzbeks leave a mosque

Uzbeks leave a mosque after traditional Friday Muslim prayers in Bukhara, Uzbekistan’s capital. (© AP Images)

“There is no question that there still remains important work to do to advance religious freedom in Vietnam,” Liston said. “Removal from the CPC list does not mean that religious freedom conditions are fully achieved.” For example, some Buddhists in the country face restrictions on moving and meeting, he said.

The United States is working to help Vietnam resolve remaining religious freedom problems, Liston said. In his visit to Hanoi, Vietnam, in November, President Bush raised religious freedom issues in his meetings with the Vietnamese president and prime minister. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also met with religious leaders during the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hanoi.

Liston reviewed the United States’ concerns with the CPCs and the efforts it has mounted to work with nations to improve religious freedom. Liston focused much of his testimony on Uzbekistan, which was added to the CPC list because its violations of religious freedom are systematic and the situation there continues to deteriorate, he said.

The government of Uzbekistan has tightened its already restrictive religion law, harassed and deregistered Christian congregations and dramatically raised fines, Liston said.

Liston said Muslims in Uzbekistan have borne the brunt of the government’s repression. The government often views conservative Islamic practice alone as grounds for suspicion of involvement in terrorism, Liston said. Although the United States recognizes that Uzbekistan faces a legitimate security threat from groups that have used religion as an excuse for violence, Liston said, the government continues to target and arrest observant Muslims who have no ties to extremists.

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John V. Hanford III has had several positive meetings with the ambassador from Uzbekistan since the country became a CPC, and the United States hopes to work with the government to help it meet international standards for protecting and promoting religious freedom, Liston said.

The full text of the prepared testimony of those who appeared before the committee is available on the House International Relations Committee Web site.

For more information, see International Religious Freedom.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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