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State Department Report Cites Religious Freedom Violations in Asia - 2004-09-16

Asian countries top the list of nations that restrict religious freedom, according to the State Department's annual report on religious freedom. But governments in those countries reject the U.S. position. China, Burma, Vietnam, and North Korea were among the countries classified as "countries of particular concern" in the new U.S. report. The other nations on the list are Cuba, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran. The State Department classifies countries of particular concern as those whose governments systematically violate religious freedom. The U.S. president can impose political and economic sanctions against countries on the list. But Secretary of State Colin Powell says Washington will use diplomacy to urge nations to respect religious freedom.

The report accuses China's government of repressing Tibetan Buddhists and Uighar Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and the Falun Gong spiritual group. A Falun Gong spokeswoman in Hong Kong, Sophie Xiao, called the U.S. report a fair assessment of the situation in China. "I think it is fairly reported," she said. "It is reporting the facts, which is that it's what is going on inside China. I believe suppression still going on." Officials in Burma, Vietnam, and China all responded angrily to the U.S. report.

Kong Quan, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, tells reporters that the Foreign Ministry firmly opposes U.S. interference in its internal affairs and religious practices.

Vietnam was placed on the list for the first time. The report says at least 45 people have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs, and hundreds of churches and places of worship in Vietnam's central highlands have been shut down. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam said in a statement from Paris that the U.S. rebuke is an "important step forward for all religious freedom in Vietnam."

The Vietnamese government rejected the report, saying it does not detain people because of their religion and that it allows religious expression.

In Burma, the report says the military regime restricts Buddhist monks from promoting human rights and political freedoms, and in some ethnic minority areas tries to force Buddhism over other religions. Rangoon rejected the report and says the United States should not criticize other countries for religious intolerance because it is experiencing religious problems at home.