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Congressional Panel Focuses on Religious Freedom Restrictions


A U.S. official and witnesses from groups advocating for religious and human rights have testified before Congress about continuing restrictions on religious freedom around the world. On Capitol Hill Tuesday, a hearing focused on eight countries named by the United States as meriting particular concern, and others where there are severe challenges to people attempting to exercise their faith.

The State Department's annual report on religious freedom names China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Burma, along with Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East, Sudan and Eritrea in Africa.

"In the totalitarian states of China, North Korea and Vietnam, there is open war against religious believers, who will not toe the line and submit their conscience to the state," said Congressman Chris Smith, who opened the hearing of the House Subcommittee on Global Human Rights. "Burma's continuing designation as a CPC [Country of Particular Concern] country comes as no surprise to those of us who have supported Burma's legitimate democracy movement. The assaults by China, Burma, Iran and Cuba against religious freedom are inseparable from their general disregard for human rights."

John Hanford, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, summarized findings in the State Department report. But he focused on two central Asian countries not named in the CPC category, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where despite some progress he says serious problems remain.

"The situation in Uzbekistan continues to involve heavy repression of religious freedom. In the past year, the government continued to mistreat Muslim believers that it suspected of extremism," he said. "Hundreds of Muslim believers are in prison for no reason other than the fact that they are outwardly observant of their religious beliefs.

Some lawmakers, and human rights groups, are disappointed that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were left off the CPC list this year.

"Uzbekistan is not even pretending to be a friend or ally of the United States right now," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "It is certainly no longer pretending to heed American concerns about human rights."

Michael Cromartie, chairman of the independent bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, calls the State Department's assessment of Turkmenistan one of the most troubling in this year's report:

"It makes the startling claim that the status of government respect for religious freedom improved during the period covered by this report," said Mr. Cromartie. "This conclusion is regarded as erroneous not only by the commission but by most human rights organizations and other observers of Turkmenistan."

China and Vietnam were another key focus of Tuesday's hearing, as lawmakers urge President Bush to put religious freedom and human rights at the top of his agenda in upcoming talks in Beijing.

Ambassador Hanford reiterated hopes that the government in Beijing will respect religious freedom, and says Vietnam must follow through with commitments in a May 5 agreement pledging to strengthen religious freedom protections.

"Vietnam must make additional progress before we can consider removing it from the list of CPCs," he added. "And we will continue working with the government to secure further reforms to facilitate greater religious freedom."

"In Tibet, Buddhism, in Xinjiang, Islam, and throughout China both protestant and catholic Christianity, and practitioners of Falun Gong during late 2004 and early 2005, were the target of deliberate attempts by central government and local officials to suppress the freedom and autonomy of people of faith," said author David Aikman, an expert on religious freedom issues in China

On Saudi Arabia, Ambassador Hanford says Washington is monitoring government steps to eliminate and replace textbooks containing anti-semitic and hate-promoting material.

Lawmakers have been critical of a 180 day waiver granted to Saudi Arabia, which delays any stronger action to allow Riyadh to make additional progress on religious freedom issues.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, and Nina Shea, of Freedom House, both faulted Saudi Arabia's commitments to such progress.

Nina Shea calls the U.S. assessment overly positive and read from a Saudi-endorsed textbook to underscore her point.

"It is published by the government of Saudi Arabia and the Ministry of Islamic Religious Affairs, and it says, I quote: Our doctrine states that if you accept any religion other than Islam, like Judaism or Christianity, which are not acceptable, you become a non-believer," said Ms. Shea. "If you do not repent you are an apostate, and you should be killed because you have denied the Koran. Mr. Chairman, these were found here in the United States."

In Tuesday's hearing, Ambassador Hanford described himself as baffled at the Eritrean government's targeting of innocent religious believers. Challenges in securing religious freedom in Sudan were also discussed.

Witnesses also addressed the question of religious freedom in Iraq, joining Mr. Hanford in the general view that much depends on how the new Iraqi constitution implements freedoms of religious belief.

The House Global Human Rights Subcommittee Tuesday also discussed the increase in anti-semitism in Russia, approving a non-binding resolution urging the protection of all religious communities there.

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