The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency, says the situation for religious freedom around the world is getting worse, not better.
The Commission issued its 2004 annual report, which covered the period from May 2003 through April 2004.
The chairman, Michael Young, listed 11 nations that the commission has singled out as “countries of particular concern.” He said that these countries are seen as engaging in ongoing and systematic abuse of religious freedom, conscience and belief. “They include Burma, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea [North Korea], Eritrea, India by majority vote of the commission, Iran, Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam,” he stated.
During last year’s designation process, Secretary of State Colin Powell named Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan as “countries of particular concern.”
Commission chairman Young emphasized his concerns over what he sees as a glaring omission. “The commission has recommended to the United States government that Saudi Arabia be named a country of particular concern and that steps be taken for the immediate improvement of religious affairs,” he said.
He added that the U.S. Congress began to look into Saudi Arabia last month. “The Commission’s recommendation was advanced when several members [of Congress] wrote to the Comptroller of the United States General Accounting Office, requesting that that agency conduct such a study to determine what the U.S. government is doing to identify and monitor sources of Saudi funding for institutions that advocate violence and intolerance, and what the United States government was doing to counter its influence,” he said.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Nina Shea raised the issue of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. She said for nearly a year, her group has urged the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq to pay greater attention to human rights.
“The commission wishes to address the shameful abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers,” she said. “Since last June, the Commission has urged the CPA administrator to appoint a team of advisers in Iraq to advise on religious affairs and to monitor human rights violations.”
Commissioner Richard Land said that the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers is news around the world, though, exactly because it is, in his words, “an aberration.” “The United States has asked to be judged by a different standard and we’re calling the rest of the world to that standard,” he noted. “What happened in that Baghdad prison was horrific and the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, as far up the chain of command as it needs to go to get to those who were responsible or whose dereliction of duty led to these abuses.”
On this issue, Mr. Young said that he thinks foreign criticism is not inappropriate, but he urged other countries to take a lesson from the U.S. example and move just as quickly to deal with their own abuses of human rights and religious freedom.