International religious freedom report notes persecution

Washington D.C., May 20, 2013 / 05:05 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Secretary of State John Kerry released on May 20 the annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, which documents violence and persecution towards global religious minorities.

“Whether it be a single deity, or multiple deities, or no deities at all, freedom to believe – including the freedom not to believe – is a universal human right,” the reports said of the freedom of religion.

“The search for this freedom led the Pilgrims to flee Europe for America’s shores centuries ago, and is enshrined in our own Constitution. But it is by no means exclusively an American right,” it added.

“The right to religious freedom is inherent in every human being. Unfortunately, this right was challenged in myriad ways in 2012.”

An annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world is required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

The 2012 analysis follows the recommendations submitted to the State Department by the independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, released in April.

The document notes trends of governments promoting violence against persons of faith, government restriction of religious practice, persecution of minority religions or sects, and failure to hold responsible citizens who themselves persecute persons of faith, and marks steps the United States took during 2012 to promote religious freedom.

Additionally, the report designated eight countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” for the “severe violations of religious freedom committed by these governments:” Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan.

In these countries, as well as others whose offenses were not as severe, the the most prominent offenses against religious liberty were:  government restrictions on the practice of a person’s faith, use of the law to target specific groups, forced conversion, societal violence against members of a given faith, and lack of accountability for violations of religious freedom.

Religious freedom leaders in the House of Representatives, however, criticized the report for not expanding the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” since 2011.

In a letter released May 20 before Secretary Kerry released the report, Representatives Chris Smith (R- N.J.), Frank Wolf (R- Va.), and Joe Pitts (R- Pa)  asked Kerry to abide by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and designate new “Countries of Particular Concern” in its yearly report.  

Rep. Smith is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, and Wolf co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. In addition, Smith and Pitts are members of the Human Rights Commission.

In their letter, the congressmen noted that the report released in 2012 covering abuses of 2011 did not designate any “Countries of Particular Concern.” They asked that the State Department re-designate the eight countries that were listed in the May 20 report, saying that if these countries were not re- designated, sanctions placed on these nations would expire in August 2013.

However, they also asked that the department designate another eight countries that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom found to commit serious offenses to religious liberty: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

The report also noted a rise in anti-Semitism around the globe that was particularly notable and violent in Venezuela, Egypt, and Iran.

The document also listed a number of ways in which the United States is attempting to advance religious liberty. These efforts include criticizing of unjust laws across the globe, working through diplomatic avenues to promote religious freedom and “rescind unduly and inappropriately restrictive laws,” and using a variety of avenues to promote respect and tolerance for religious freedom in countries around the world.  

Secretary of State John Kerry called the report an “important step” in global diplomacy and urged “all countries, especially those identified in this report, to take action now to safeguard this fundamental freedom.”

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, also spoke on the report, saying the document “makes clear” that there is “much work remains to be done” to promote and protect religious freedom.

She also noted, however, that there have been improvements since last year’s report, saying that while the Vietnamese government still restricts religion, “the government took a step forward by allowing large-scale worship services,” and that Turkey has “loosened its restrictions on religious attire,” allowing headscarves in certain Islamic schools and classes.

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