.- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to focus on religious liberty as a key human right during an upcoming U.N. Human Rights Council review.
Commission chair Katrina Lantos Swett told Kerry in an April 12 letter that the U.N. council’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review forum “provides a unique opportunity to shine a light on the violations of religious freedom in these countries and to encourage these nations’ governments to comply with international norms.”
Swett said the forum allows U.S. representatives to ask “hard questions” about countries with “profoundly troubling” religious freedom records in the former Soviet Union, central Asia and the Middle East.
“Doing so would publicly reaffirm that the promotion of religious freedom remains a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy and a concern to the international community,” she said.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is an independent federal organization that makes recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress. The President and congressional leadership from both parties appoint its members.
The commission’s letter preceded the April 19 release of the U.S. State Department’s human rights report for 2012.
“These reports send a very clear message that all governments have a responsibility to protect universal human rights and they help to blaze a path forward for places where those rights are either threatened or denied,” Secretary Kerry said.
The report examined numerous countries around the world to see whether they respected basic human rights, such as freedom of speech, voting rights and “gay rights,” a new emphasis of the State Department in recent years.
Religious freedom issues were not a major focus of Kerry’s remarks, though he did mention countries where religious minorities “find themselves in prison for violating blasphemy laws.”
The State Department report found restrictions on religious freedom in countries including Belarus, Burma, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It listed discrimination and violence against religious minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The report also said “extremist threats” limited religious freedom in Iraq. Its section on Iran said the government and security forces “pressured, intimidated and arrested” religious activists as well as students, journalists, lawyers, artists and members of their families.
The U.S. religious freedom commission’s letter to Kerry focused on religious freedom problems in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, Azerbaijan and Bangladesh.
Regarding Uzbekistan, the commission criticized “harsh penalties” for independent religious activity and “state control” of religious communities, including arrests of non-conformists without due process.
The group said religious freedom violations in Turkmenistan are “severe” and include raids on religious groups.
The religious freedom situation in Russia has “deteriorated,” the commission added. Authorities are using an anti-extremism law against non-violent groups, there is “intolerance towards religious groups deemed ‘alien’ to Russian culture” and a proposed blasphemy bill could further curtail freedoms, it explained.
The situation in Azerbaijan is also deteriorating, it said. Authorities in the country have closed religious organizations and punished non-violent religious activity with detentions and fines. Registered religious groups are under strict rules while unregistered groups are illegal.
The Bangladesh government has failed to respond to violence against Buddhists, Ahmadis and Hindus, the commission said.
It appealed to Kerry to “raise questions about violations of religious freedom and related human rights” in these countries during the upcoming Human Rights Council review period.