US allies under fire in religious freedom report

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduces the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduces the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report


The U.S. State Department released its 2010 International Religious Freedom Report on Nov. 17. Several of the nation's closest strategic and commercial partners came in for criticism, including some that were designated as “countries of particular concern” for their religious repression.

In Afghanistan –where U.S. and NATO troops are now expected to be fighting until 2014, in support of an officially Islamic state– the report listed a series of “serious obstacles” to religious freedom.

Some of these obstacles included “harassment, occasional violence, discrimination, and inflammatory public statements by members of parliament,” as well as television broadcasts targeting Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs.

Pakistan, another U.S. strategic partner whose constitution “establishes Islam as the state religion,” also drew some sharp criticism. “The government took some steps to improve its treatment of religious minorities,” the report stated, “but serious problems remained,” such as increasingly frequent and severe incidents of “organized violence,” and the abuse of non-Muslims at the hands of police.

The State Department continued to list Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” for its attitude toward religious freedom, which is “neither recognized nor protected” by the country's Islamic monarchy, and “severely restricted in practice.”

Notably, the State Department also recently announced in October 2010 that it would be conducting the largest arms deal in American history with Saudi Arabia, by selling $60.5 billion in military hardware to the oil-rich kingdom.

Another American ally, Egypt –which has received almost $40 billion in U.S. military aid since 1980, and $28 billion in economic and developmental aid since 1975– received low marks on religious liberty. “The status of respect for religious freedom by the government remained poor, unchanged from the previous year,” the report noted.

Egypt's government “failed to prosecute perpetrators of violence against Coptic Christians in a number of cases,” and “again failed to redress laws ... and government practices, especially government hiring, that discriminate against Christians.”

It also appeared that “Operation Iraqi Freedom” may not have improved Iraqis' religious freedom during its final year.

While Iraq's new constitution attempted to ensure “freedom of … religious belief and practice,” the State Department found that “violence conducted by terrorists, extremists, and criminal gangs restricted the free exercise of religion and posed a significant threat to the country's vulnerable religious minorities throughout the reporting period.”

Iraq was not able to form a central government during a significant part of that reporting period. This tumultuous state of affairs may partly explain the State Department's finding that “very few of the perpetrators of violence committed against Christians and other religious minorities in the country were punished.”

China, a country that sold almost $300 billion in goods to America in 2009, was once again designated a “country of particular concern” for its treatment of religious adherents during the same year. The government has outlawed Catholic groups that are in full obedience to the Holy See, while setting up its own “Patriotic Catholic Association” to regulate Catholic activity and worship.

Chinese Protestants, Buddhists, Taoists and Muslims face a similar situation, with the government  defining and overseeing the entire range of “normal religious activities” that it claims to permit. Chinese law does not protect other religions, and some are completely banned.

The State Department did acknowledge a slightly greater openness toward the possibility of greater religious liberty in China, and openness to discussion on the subject of unregistered churches. Relations between state-approved bishops and the Vatican have also improved in recent years.

Although President Barack Obama recently praised Indonesia for its “inclusive philosophy” and “rich diversity,” the State Department report was less sanguine. It noted that “decrees issued by the Indonesian Council of Ulama, the top Muslim clerical body,” had been “influential in enabling continued official and societal discrimination” against non-Muslims as well as minority Islamic sects.

While the Council of Ulama is not a government body, the State Department's 2007 report noted that the Indonesian government founded the council, in addition to funding it and appointing its members. The 2010 report took note of unsuccessful challenges to Indonesia's “blasphemy law,” which allows the 88-percent Muslim country to prosecute those guilty of “denigrating religion.”

Alongside these trading partners and allies, the report also criticized a range of countries with whom the U.S. has a tense, antagonistic or indeterminate relationship. Burma, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Uzbekistan were all designated as “countries of particular concern” for their attitude toward disfavored religions.

The Venezuelan government reportedly “respected religious freedom in practice”– with the exception of “those religious groups that criticized the government,” including the Catholic Church. In Cuba and Vietnam, where Marxist-oriented governments have historically endeavored to suppress or restrict religion, the report noted a mix of positive developments and continued problems.

The Vietnamese government “permitted the expansion of charitable activities by religious organizations” and began allowing more large-scale religious gatherings, although many restrictions remain. During the State Department's reporting period, President Nguyen Minh Triet met with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the Church's presence in Vietnam.

While similar restrictions remain in Cuba, including “regular surveillance and occasional detentions,” the report said “many religious groups reported improvements in religious freedom.” President Obama recently renewed a ban on Cuban trade and travel for another year,  making Cuba the only country in the world that the U.S. government currently sanctions under its 1917 “Trading With the Enemy Act.”

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