The State of Religious Freedom in the World

WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 24, 2003 ( U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom takes on Saudi Arabia in particular in its latest annual report on religious liberties worldwide.

In a press release May 13, USCIRF urged the U.S. government "to identify human rights problems in Saudi Arabia and publicly acknowledge that they are significant issues in the bilateral relationship." Non-Muslims in the desert kingdom who try to engage in even private worship are met with harassment, arrest, imprisonment and even torture, the commission said. It also expressed concern over the religious police, or mutawaa, "whose powers are vaguely defined and exercised in ways that violate the religious freedom of others."

And non-Muslims aren't the only ones suffering in Saudi Arabia, the USCIRF said. The government "vigorously enforces its prohibition" against all those who do not follow the official interpretation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam. The controls include the appointments of imams, the regulation of sermons, and the content of religious education.

The commission recommended an investigation of the Saudi government's funding of the global propagation "of a religious ideology that promotes hate, intolerance and in some cases violence." The panel also called for pressure to ensure immediate improvements in respect for religious freedom, including permitting non-Wahhabi places of worship in certain areas and the lifting of restrictions on the religious practice of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel.

Afghanistan also came under fire. The commission fears "that Afghanistan is being reconstructed -- without serious U.S. opposition -- as a state in which an extreme interpretation of Shariah [Islamic law] would be enforced by a government which the United States supports and with which our nation is closely identified."

The report also noted that there is a lack of guarantees for human rights in the constitution now being drafted. There are indications that the document so far omits adequate safeguards for freedom of religion and the rights of women and religious minorities.


On the other side of the world, "the already poor religious freedom conditions in Vietnam have deteriorated," the USCIRF said. A crackdown on religious freedom "was reportedly sanctioned at the highest levels of the Vietnamese government, according to documents obtained by human rights non-governmental organizations," the report said.

Among the problems noted by USCIRF is the imprisonment of religious dissidents. Groups outside Vietnam have identified about 100 religious adherents who are imprisoned or detained. The commission also said Hanoi has continued its campaign of forcing religious minorities in the northwestern provinces and the central highlands to renounce their faith.

Consequently the report recommends that international financial institutions withhold support for non-humanitarian loans to Vietnam until substantial improvements are made in the protection of religious freedom.

In Russia, meanwhile, religious freedom is greater now than at any time in the country's history, says USCIRF. Nevertheless, "an attempt is under way on the part of elements within the Russian government, aided or perhaps encouraged by the Russian Orthodox Church, to curb religious freedom further and bring the religious practice of Russian citizens under the closer control and tutelage of the state."

Among the worrying events in Russia, the report notes a conspicuous increase in the number of clergy and other religious workers denied visas or residency permits, even in cases of previous long-term residency in Russia; evidence of government meddling in the internal affairs of certain religious communities; the continued occurrence of anti-Semitic attacks; a recent increase in violence against Muslims; the persistent uncertainties in the legal situation, due in part to the seemingly vague procedures for amending the 1997 religion law and the tabling or passage of other laws related to religious practice.

Belarus also came in for strong criticism. The USCIRF explained that President Alexandr Lukashenko last October signed legislation that further restricts religious freedom in the former Soviet republic. "The law has been called the most repressive religious law in Europe," said the commission. The law bans all unregistered religious activity and also imposes government censorship of religious literature.

Under the new law, both religious publishing and education will be restricted to groups that have 10 registered communities, including at least one that was in existence in 1982. This last requirement "is particularly onerous," notes USCIRF, given that in 1982 the country was still under Soviet repression, when few religious groups were able to operate openly.

Other countries of concern

The commission's report has a section on countries of particular concern. Among these is Burma (Myanmar), whose government "persists in exercising strict control over all religious activities and imposing severe restrictions on certain religious practices."

These violations of liberty have included the killing of members of religious minorities by the military, the report said. The regime also encourages tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Christian and Muslim minorities. Members of religious minorities have been forcibly conscripted as military porters, and those who refuse face death, the report said.

China also comes in for strong criticism. The commission argues that
during the past year "official respect for religious freedom in China has diminished." The report states that people "continue to be confined, tortured, imprisoned and subject to other forms of ill treatment on account of their religion or belief."

Among the persecuted were three priests affiliated with the underground Catholic Church. Last July they were reportedly sentenced to three years in a labor camp after having been convicted of engaging in "cult" activities.

Authorities have also closed many "illegal" religious centers run by Muslims in the province of Xinjiang, where dozens of Muslim clerics and students were reportedly detained or arrested. The Chinese government also retains tight control over religious activity and places of worship in Tibet, the report said. "Hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns remain in prison and are reportedly subject to torture and other extreme forms of punishment, while others have been executed without due process."

The commission also expressed its concern over the situation in India. With the rise in power of the Bharatiya Janata Party, "the climate of immunity for the perpetrators of attacks on minorities appears to have strengthened." The report admitted that the BJP-led government might not be directly responsible for instigating the violence against religious minorities. But "it is clear that the government is not doing all that it could to pursue the perpetrators of the attacks and to counteract the prevailing climate of hostility against these minority groups."

Another country signaled out by the report is Laos. "Lao government officials continue to engage in particularly severe violations of religious freedom," it stated. Abuses include arrest and imprisonment of members of minority religions on account of their faith. "In some instances, officials forced Christians to renounce their faith," the commission noted.

Since 1999, more than 85 Protestant churches have been closed; many remained shuttered as of December. The Catholic bishop of Luang Prabang, meanwhile, has not been allowed to travel to five of the six provinces in his diocese. In many parts of the world, religious liberty remains a rare flower.