US Report on Religious Freedom: Some Reactions

Two weeks ago the US State Department produced its annual Report on International Religious Freedom. Countries singled out for particular concern (“CPCs”) were Iran, China, North Korea (which has also just been the subject of another report, and now a UN Resolution), Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Burma, and Vietnam, but a number of other nations also received criticism. Reactions to the report are now coming in.

From the CPCs themselves, not much has been heard, although China has made a predictable response. Xinhua reports:

China firmly rejects, with strong displeasure, accusations from US State Department of its national religion policy, [Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman] Liu [Jianchao] said.

…When asked to comment on this report, Liu told a regular press conference that the report posed unreasonable criticism of China’s religious policies, trampled the norms of international relations and interfered in China’s internal affairs.

Liu said China protects its citizens’ religious rights in accordance with its law, and all ethnic groups and people across the country enjoy religious freedom. “Chinese people have a say in this matter,” Liu noted.

Liu urged the United States to stop its “intervention” in China’s internal affairs in regards to religion, to “face up” to its own domestic problems of religious freedom, and to take more actions conducive to promoting China-US mutual understanding.

Russia is also unhappy. Moscow News summarised the report’s findings on the country and its neighbours shortly after its publication:

The report cited in particular societal discrimination and antagonism against Muslims in Russia, legal obstacles that work to the disadvantage of such nontraditional groups as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and an increase in both anti-Semitic incidents and the harassment of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians.

The report also said concerns remained about Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus.

Russian officials and religious leaders who enjoy a close relationship with the state have offered critical responses. Over to Interfax:

‘I have analyzed the U.S. Department of State report am sure that one-sided information from Russia was used for compiling this document’, metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, head of the Department for external church relations of the Moscow Patriarchate said at a press conference at Interfax on Tuesday.

…According to the metropolitan, protest groups and sects were major source of research by the American analysts. ‘None of the compilers asked the Russian Orthodox church or the traditional religions of Russia for information, and we have got what protest groups and sectarians wanted’.

(Kirill was one of the leading campaigners against the “Beware Religion!” art exhibition that led to criminal charges last year, and which I blogged on at the time). Kirill’s line was echoed by a government official:

“The Russian Foreign Ministry is bewildered by the persistence with which the U.S. State Department is trying to label this country as a nation allegedly having problems with guaranteeing religious freedoms,” [Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail] Kamynin said.

Kamynin also invoked the recently-revealed secret CIA prisons to suggest the report was intended to shift attention from this “touchy matter”. Russia Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar (a close Putin ally; the two even give each other medals) was a bit more positive, but not much:

In short, experts from the State Department have done a great deal of work on collecting and processing data, while their analytic work wholly deserves praise. Nevertheless, I am surprised with the conclusions deducted from this analysis. If the dynamics are so positive and if, in a period of 15 years, Russia has grown from a dictatorship of aggressive atheism to become a state that realizes the need to restore religious spirituality and provide thousands of religious communities with religious freedom – then it is hard to understand why, in its analysis, the State Department depicts our country as ‘unfavorable’. I believe this conclusion is made due to some kind of inertia in thinking, since, while recognizing the many positive changes, we are still being considered from a position of times past. This is, of course, not Russia’s problem

Meanwhile, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on the Israel and Occupied Territories section, which

expands its criticisms of Israel’s treatment of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, and places Israel on notice that the United States is monitoring its treatment of other minorities, including “messianic Jews” and faiths practiced by guest workers.

…Lengthy passages in the report expand on the alleged discrimination, looking at the status of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish immigrants; allegations of discriminatory funding in favor of Orthodox schools; and the state of efforts to legislate civil marriage. Such allegations of discrimination have circulated for years in Israel, but previous reports hardly addressed them.

(I noted a particular campaign against Messianics here)

The report is praised by Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, who heads the Religious Action Center in Washington:

“The State Department is trying to lay down more consistent standards in these areas and to hold friends and allies to the same standards as it holds other nations,” he said “It’s hopeful that this will make Israel sit up and take notice when it sees the international community so deeply troubled.”

On the other hand, the report is also accused of letting some countries off lightly (links added):

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended earlier this year that the State Department cite Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan as “countries of particular concern.”…But in its annual report last week, the State Department made no change to its list of the most serious violators of religious freedom.

[Chairman of the Commission Michael] Cromartie said the State Department’s finding that Turkmenistan had made significant improvements in religious freedoms in the past year was particularly distressing to rights advocates. He said most religious activities in Turkmenistan are under state control. And Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, he said, continues to cultivate a personality cult that has become an enforced quasireligion for the Turkmen people.

John Hanford, the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, defended the decision:

“In Turkmenistan, presidential decrees and amendments to law resulted in the registration of new minority religious groups and the release of a number of prisoners. And just recently, the government conducted a first-ever roundtable with representatives of religious minorities. Nevertheless, serious problems remain.”

US Congressman Chris Smith, who chairs the House Human Rights Subcommittee (and who was largely responsible for the legislation which led to the first report in 2001), thought that the section on Vietnam could have been stronger, despite the serious concerns raised. The AP noted his reaction when the report was released (link added):

On Vietnam, where the State Department found improvements, Smith disagreed, particularly on the way the government treated Montagnard Christians.

The religious situation has deteriorated, he said, and the arrest and sentencing of Vo Vanh Thanh Liem (Nam Liem), a leading figure of the independent Hoa Hao Buddhists, was an outrage.

But what’s going to happen? Christianity Today reports:

Seven years after vowing to punish countries that restrict religious freedom, the U.S. government announced sanctions against the tiny African nation of Eritrea. The September 23 announcement represents the first such action the U.S. has taken under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

…White House officials opted to negotiate with leaders of Saudi Arabia and Vietnam before deciding on whether to impose sanctions…State Department officials plan to continue to speak with Saudi leaders and issue a statement by late March.

Simon Henderson, a conservative scholar with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, surveys the report and ends on a pessimistic note:

There remains the danger that the annual State Department report will become a dead letter, serving as a goldmine of information only for academic researchers, and that the Religious Freedom Commission will become increasingly frustrated by its powerlessness. The longest section of the 2005 report’s executive summary lists U.S. actions to advance international religious freedom in the CPCs and several other states. That list reflects time and energy invested by U.S diplomats but also suggests a triumph of form over substance.

UPDATE: Lawrence Uzzell, of International Religious Freedom Watch, also notes the report’s shortcomings, in an op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor:

The State Department’s annual reports on topics such as religious persecution, with their country-by-country surveys, get far more attention from the alleged persecutors and their victims than from Americans.

Unfortunately the department’s latest report, released this month, tends to confirm the view that Washington is reluctant to tell the truth about its own allies – or even countries with which it would like to be allies.

UPDATE 2: Amnesty International has a new report highlighting persecution in Eritrea.

3 Responses

  1. […] also discounted US concerns about religious freedom in the country: Unfortunately, I am not aware of any specific facts […]

  2. […] The report also contains information about Georgia, Iraq, Laos, and Russia, as well as some assessment of how the USA has responded to the problems. It comes six months after the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, which was heavily criticized by various lobbies and individuals (including the committee’s chairman) that I discussed here. […]

  3. […] that Washington is reluctant to tell the truth about its own allies” – I blogged on that here. In May, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom produced its own report, which I […]

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