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Religious Freedom Commission Identifies 11 Countries of Concern - 2004-02-19


The independent federal agency that makes recommendations to the State Department on issues of international religious freedom has named 11 countries as especially flagrant violators.

The chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Michael Young, said the group has concluded that 11 countries should be given the most serious designation, as countries of particular concern.

He said these include Burma, China, Eritrea, India, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. He urged the State Department to repeat these designations, when it issues its annual report on religious freedom and to take stronger steps to encourage the named countries to make improvements.

"This designation does not necessarily mean that there would be sanctions against a country or any particular action," says Mr. Young. "But it does require that the Secretary of State engage at the highest levels with that country and enter into an agreement that involves the articulation of specific steps that would be taken to improve the state or religious liberties in that particular country."

Of these 11 countries, five of them were already named in the State Department's 2003 report on religious freedom. But six of them -- Eritrea, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam -- were not singled out in that report. Mr. Young said this is not the first time his commission has criticized Saudi Arabia.

"According to the U.S. State Department's own report, not the report of our commission, but the State Department's own report, is that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia. It's a simple, categorical statement. That's how they open up their analysis," he says. "And in our judgment, Saudi Arabia is a country with which we have close ties and cooperation on these matters ought to be deeper and this ought to be a more important focal point of this cooperation."

He added that the same can be said for Vietnam and Turkmenistan. "I think it's fair to say the situation in Turkmenistan is probably getting worse and it's more deserving of the designation this year than even last year, but it richly deserved it last year," he says. "Indeed, the totality of repression of human rights in Turkmenistan is appalling."

With India, there were dissenting opinions within the commission on whether or not it should be included on the list of countries of particular concern. But Mr. Young said there is one thing about India all nine commissioners do agree on. "There is no disagreement on the part of the commission that there are serious unaddressed problems, that the [Indian] government has not distanced itself from these extremist views and in fact, to a disconcerting extent, has allied itself with those," said Mr. Young.

The White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate each appoint three members to the commission. Each commissioner serves a two-year term, with the possibility for reappointment. The current group includes three Catholics, one Hindu, one Jew, one Mormon, one Muslim and two Protestants.