University of Utah President Michael K. Young took considerable interest as the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom released its annual report Friday, adding to its lists of nations it considers worthy of "countries of particular concern" designation or needing close monitoring.
Not that Young would find either his name or his institution mentioned in the 267-page report or two-hour morning news conference in Washington, D.C.
Rather, his is a continued interest as a former eight-year member and two-time chairman of the commission — created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 — that monitors and documents serious abuses of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief around the world.
On Friday, the 10-member commission recommended to President Barack Obama, the U.S. Congress and the secretary of state that Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam be designated as "countries of particular concern."
Eight — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan — already have that official designation by the U.S. Iraq and Nigeria are new additions.
The commission also placed Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela on its "Watch List" of nations it is closely monitoring. The last six are new this year.
Young said the annual report's country-by-country documentation of religious abuses "start with the worst cases first" — individuals and groups killed or imprisoned, houses and churches burned, and people forced out of villages. It's not simply that a single religion or group of faiths are "being inconvenienced or marginally discriminated against."
As for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Young — himself a member of the Mormon faith — said the LDS Church's reach doesn't run very deep in most of the countries and members aren't subject to the extreme and horrific atrocities.
Still, Young cited three reasons why members of the LDS Church should take interest in global religious freedoms and the commission's efforts:
Restrictions on and abuses of religious freedoms are not a temporary matter but often continue to escalate and encroach until the government has either achieved its purpose or ended its perception of threats.
The LDS Church is "a minority religion everywhere — that makes us vulnerable in precisely these ways," Young said. "When they're doing it to someone else, we have to be concerned — in a very narrow, self-interested way — that they're going to do it to us."
Members of the LDS Church should have empathy for those suffering elsewhere in the world for their religious beliefs and acts because severe anti-Mormon persecution is part of the church's relative short history.
"Our history in being oppressed in many of these same ways is not that long distant, not that long again," he said, adding "if any people should be sensitive to how important that is, it should be us. We ought to be at the forefront because these are human beings."
On an admittedly practical level, LDS Church expansion in some of the world's most populous nations will be limited by religious freedom challenges.
"We're not going to be in a position to do much but stand on the sidelines and watch in terms of proselytization until these behaviors change," he said.
Just as when he served, Young is concerned the committee's recommendations for action will go mostly unimplemented in the ongoing tug-of-war between Congress and the president, between American values and American interests and between political freedom and economic freedom.
Often, sanctions enacted in the name of encouraging international freedom have merely overlapped or duplicated existing government sanctions, such as anti-terrorism measures.
Young said he had in the past encouraged the U.S. to consider not just negative sanctions but positive incentives, such as world bank loans, foreign aid or cooperative economic efforts.
Even though four years have passed since leaving the commission, Young says he still carries recollections of on-site visits with abuse victims and family members.
They include the elderly woman imprisoned in China after authorities found scriptural verses handwritten on paper and hidden in her walls and the survivor of a refugee family returned after having escaped from North Korea and eventually killed when officials there found that the 6-year-old girl had accepted a cross as simple jewelry during the family's stay at the Christian-run refugee camp.
"Some of these stories still haunt me at night," he said, adding, "You don't have words to describe them."
Monitoring religious freedom worldwide
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends the following nations be designated "countries of particular concern," saying they have engaged in or tolerated "particularly severe" violations of religious freedom:
North Korea *
Saudi Arabia *
The commission also placed the following nations it is closely monitoring on its "Watch List":
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* — nations already officially designated a "country of particular concern" by the United States.
# — countries added this year by the commission to their respective list.
SOURCE: U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom