Ibrahim Usta, AP
The tension over which countries the United States should label as concerns for mistreating their religious minorities continued Tuesday, when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual watch list.
The independent commission didn't include Turkey this year, but it still saw things differently from the State Department, nominating nearly twice the number of countries for censure than appear on State Department lists.
The commission and the State Department agree on eight "countries of particular concern" — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. But the commission recommended seven more — Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam — where diplomatic concerns, critics argue, lead U.S. diplomats to downplay abuses of religious minorities.
The differences actually arise by design. USCIRF is an independent commission founded by Congress to make sure that religious liberty does not get lost in a mix of diplomatic priorities.
USCIRF chairwoman Katrina Lantos Swett said the commission is "something of a watchdog."
“Congress showed its wisdom in making USCIRF a very independent body, because it gives us an ability to try to pressure our own government," she said during a conference call announcing the commission's findings.
“When our government is trying to move forward and improve relations,” she added, “do they keep their eye on the religious freedom ball and insist that that piece of change be brought along, or does it get sidelined? Our role and our goal is to make sure this doesn't happen."
The absence of Turkey from this year's list is notable because its inclusion last year on the USCIRF watch list created a minor fracas, creating indignation in some diplomatic circles and friction within the commission itself.
Turkey is not the only country that has expressed umbrage at being included on USCIRF’s list. Vietnam has also been a center of controversy, as diplomatic progress over the last several years has overshadowed ongoing religious persecution.
“Vietnam is another situation where religious freedom conditions remained poor, even though there are positive changes in some other areas,” Swett said. “Our focus is on the way the government of Vietnam continues to imprison individuals for religious activities or for religious freedom advocacy.”
The commission's new report calls on the Obama administration to actively weave religious freedom initiatives into other aspects of national security strategy.
More particularly, Swett called for the State Department to fulfill its legal responsibility by issuing annual "countries of particular concern" findings. She said that the statute requires this but that the State Department has often failed to do so.
She also challenged the State Department to compile "a list of persons" who have been detained or persecuted for religious reasons. "State has not, as far as we know, established a comprehensive list of persons as is required under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998," she said.
USCIRF also wants the administration to develop a "lookout list" of religious freedom violators who should not be allowed into the United States.
Finally, Swett said that, under the 1998 law, “The president is encouraged to determine specific officials who are responsible for religious freedom violations in CPC countries." The statute calls for those names to be published.
Swett talked at length about the key role she said religious liberty ought to play in U.S. diplomatic policy.
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