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U.S. watchdog agency releases annual list of religious liberty abusers

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 9:53 a.m. MDT

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. (Ibrahim Usta, AP) 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. (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.

"The suppression and abuse of the fundamental right of freedom of belief and conscience often leads in this world to violent religious extremism. And as we know all too well, such extremism is a major cause of instability and violence in the world."

Swett said that some of the governments the commission studied perpetrated the abuses themselves, while in other cases governments look the other way when individuals trampled on the rights of religious minorities. "But in either case the result is division, instability, and in all too many cases, violence," she said.

Swett pointed to studies by the Pew Foundation, among others, that show that countries with greater tolerance and religious freedom are more stable and prosperous.

“Religious freedom is a core human right," she said, one that is "intertwined" with all other human rights, "most notably freedom of expression, association and assembly."

In some cases, such as Ethiopia and Tajikistan, Swett argued, governments that stifle religious freedom "drive their citizens into the arms of extremists."

At the same time, she said, groups that feel threatened may ratchet up the tension in a defensive manner, "creating a kind of vigilante atmosphere." She pointed to Egypt and Pakistan as examples of such reactive violence.

Swett also pointed to countries that try to contain religious extremism through suppressive measures, with the perverse effect, she argued, of suppressing moderate practice while making radicals appear cool.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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