U.S. Releases 2004 International Religious Freedom Report

Note: The full text of the 2004 International Religious Freedom Report can be found online here.

The U.S. Department of State released the sixth Annual Report on International Religious Freedom September 15, examining the “status of religious freedom around the world.”

The annual report to Congress, mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, aims to “examine barriers to religious freedom, note countries where religious freedom conditions have improved, and describe U.S. actions to promote international religious freedom.”

The 2004 report designates Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and Vietnam as new “Countries of Particular Concern” for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The report also renamed Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan to the list.

The report also identifies countries that have achieved “significant improvement in the protection and promotion” of religious freedom, including Afghanistan, Georgia, India, Turkey and Turkmenistan.

In addition to the “Countries of Particular Concern,” the report identifies many countries that restrict religious freedom through: totalitarian or authoritarian actions to control religious belief or practice, state hostility toward minority or non-approved religions, state neglect of societal discrimination against or persecution of minority religions, discriminatory legislation or policies prejudicial to certain religious, and denouncing certain religions by affiliating them with dangerous “cults” or “sects.”

The report concludes with an overview of U.S. efforts to promote and support international religious freedom. The Executive Summary describes the work of U.S. officials around the world who advocate on behalf of religious freedom through dialog with government officials and religious leaders, sponsorship of events promoting religious freedom and support for religious freedom monitoring and advocacy groups. The United States in 2004 supported numerous initiatives in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, including in several of the “Countries of Particular Concern” such as China, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

Because the right to freedom of religion is “enshrined as both a foundational American value and a universal principle,” the report states that “promoting religious freedom continues to be an essential element of United States foreign policy.”

Following is the text of the Executive Summary of the 2004 International Religious Freedom Report

2004 Executive Summary

International Religious Freedom Report
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Religious liberty lies at the heart of a just and free society. Enshrined as both a foundational American value and a universal principle, the right to freedom of religion is also a cornerstone of democracy. It is a vital measure in the creation and maintenance of a stable political system. Conversely, the failure to protect freedom of religion and other fundamental human rights can undermine social order, foster extremism, and lead to instability and violence. Assessing the status of religious freedom can often serve as one helpful diagnostic for the overall health and stability of a nation. For these reasons and others, promoting religious freedom continues to be an essential element of United States foreign policy. President Bush has observed that “successful societies guarantee religious liberty,” and the Administration’s National Security Strategy declares that the U.S. will “take special efforts to promote freedom of religion and conscience and defend it from encroachment by repressive governments.”

The United States is not alone in this commitment. Religious freedom is a universal value, and almost all of the world’s nations have signed one or more international agreements committing them to respect individual freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Beginning with the 1948 adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and continuing with the nearly global ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the nations of the world have affirmed the principle that governments have a fundamental responsibility to protect freedom of religion. (See Appendices A and B for the texts of these documents.) In practice, however, this freedom is often restricted, abused or denied, and many people continue to suffer solely for following the dictates of conscience.

Ultimately, each nation’s policies and practices regarding religious freedom must be measured against international norms. The United States acknowledges its own responsibility with respect to these norms in the safeguarding and protection of religious liberty.

In this summary of the status of religious freedom around the world, we examine barriers to religious freedom, note countries where religious freedom conditions have improved, and describe U.S. actions to promote international religious freedom. Millions of people around the world live under totalitarian or authoritarian regimes where religious belief and practice are tightly controlled. Some countries have discriminatory laws or policies that disadvantage certain religions; others are negligent in ensuring that religious minorities or adherents of “unapproved” religions do not suffer discrimination or persecution. Others stigmatize certain religions by wrongfully associating them with dangerous “cults” or “sects.”

Sometimes intolerance has several components, including a religious dimension. Anti-Semitism, for example, touches on both religious discrimination and ethnic discrimination, and it continues to be a problem of great concern to the U.S. Government and the international community. This year’s report shows a disturbing increase in anti-Semitism in several European countries, as well as ongoing anti-Semitism in many predominantly Muslim countries. To address this issue, in April the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) hosted in Berlin a second conference on anti-Semitism, in which Secretary of State Powell participated. As a result of these conferences, the OSCE is implementing a process to monitor and report in a consistent manner on anti-Semitic incidents. These conferences were the first multilateral gatherings devoted solely to this subject and also the first to deal with anti-Semitism as a human rights issue.

It should be noted that there is no Iraq report in this year’s submission. In keeping with State Department precedent, we do not report on our own governance but welcome the scrutiny of other responsible reporters. The reporting period ends on June 30, which roughly coincides with the date of the transfer of power from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi Interim Government. In June, the Secretary acted to remove Iraq’s designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its severe violations of religious freedom under the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Transitional Administrative Law, ratified in March, includes provisions for freedom of religion, including the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice.” Early next year, the Department will release its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which will include a section on religious freedom in Iraq from the transfer of power to the Iraqi Interim Government through the end of 2004.

The Executive Summary consists of three parts. Part I identifies many of the countries where religious freedom is restricted and classifies their actions and policies into five categories. Part II provides examples of nations whose governments have taken significant steps to promote or protect religious freedom, even though serious problems may remain in those countries. Part III lists noteworthy actions the U.S. Government has taken to encourage other nations to promote religious freedom. Some countries are mentioned in more than one part of the summary, according to the type of action or situation being reported. Within Part I, several of the countries could be listed in more than one of the five categories; however, in the interest of brevity, a given country is listed only once, in the category that best characterizes the fundamental barriers to religious freedom in that country.

Part I: Barriers to International Religious Freedom

Totalitarian or Authoritarian Actions to Control Religious Belief or Practice

Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes seek to control religious thought and expression. Such regimes regard some or all religious groups as enemies of the state because of their religious content. The practice of religion is often seen as a threat to the state’s ideology or the government’s power. Oftentimes, the state suppresses religions based on the ethnic character of the religious groups.

Burma. The Government continued to engage in particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The Government generally infiltrated or monitored the meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious ones. It systemically restricted efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom, discouraged or prohibited minority religions from constructing new places of worship, and in some ethnic minority areas coercively promoted Buddhism over other religions, particularly among members of ethnic minority groups. Christian groups in most regions continued to experience difficulties in obtaining permission to repair existing churches or to build new ones, while Muslims reported they essentially were banned from constructing new mosques or expanding existing ones anywhere in the country. Anti-Muslim violence continued to occur, Muslim activities were monitored, and the Government restricted the ability of Muslims to worship and travel freely.

China. The Government’s respect for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience remained poor, especially for many unregistered religious groups and spiritual movements such as the Falun Gong. Particularly severe violations of religious freedom continued. Members of many unregistered religious groups, including Protestant and Catholic groups, were subjected to restrictions, including intimidation, harassment, and detention; however, the degree of restrictions varied significantly from region to region. In some localities, “underground” religious leaders reported ongoing pressure to register with the State Administration for Religious Activities. Spiritual activities in churches that have not registered may be considered illegal, and participants can be punished. In some areas, security authorities used threats, demolition of unregistered property, extortion, interrogation, detention, and at times beatings and torture to harass leaders of unauthorized groups and their followers. The arrest, detention and imprisonment of Falun Gong practitioners continued. Practitioners who refuse to recant their beliefs are sometimes subjected to harsh treatment in prisons and reeducation-through-labor camps, and there have been credible reports of deaths due to torture and abuse. Christian-based groups that the Government considered “cults” were subjected to increased government scrutiny. In areas where unrest has occurred, especially among the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province, officials continued to restrict the building of mosques and the training of clergy, and they prohibited the teaching of Islam to children. Although the authorities permit many traditional religious practices and public manifestations of belief in Tibetan areas, they promptly and forcibly suppress activities they view as vehicles for political dissent or advocacy of Tibetan independence, such as religious activities venerating the Dalai Lama.

Cuba. The Ministry of Interior continues to control and monitor religious activities and to use surveillance, infiltration and harassment against religious groups, clergy and laypersons. The Government monitors all religious groups, including registered and established institutions. Government harassment of private houses of worship continued, with evangelical denominations reporting evictions from houses used for worship. The authorities restrict the import and distribution of religious literature and materials, and they monitor church-run publications. The law allows for the construction of new churches once the required permits are obtained; however, the Government has almost never authorized construction permits, forcing many churches to seek permits to meet in private homes. Religious groups must also obtain a permit to reconstruct or repair existing places of worship. The process of obtaining a permit and purchasing construction materials from government outlets is lengthy and expensive. The church is not permitted to train or transfer from abroad enough priests for its needs, nor is it allowed to establish social institutions, including schools and universities, hospitals and clinics, and nursing homes.

Laos. Authorities in some areas continued to display intolerance for minority religions, particularly Protestant denominations. There were reports of local officials pressuring minority Christians to renounce their faith on threat of arrest or forceful eviction from their villages. There were also several instances of persons detained or arrested for their religious faith in Savannakhet and Attapeu provinces. There were two known religious prisoners, both members of the Lao Evangelical Church, the country’s domestic Protestant Christian church. Although in theory the Prime Minister’s Decree on Religious Practice provides a mechanism for new religious denominations to register, the Government’s desire to consolidate religious practice for control purposes has effectively blocked registration of new denominations. Persons arrested for their religious activities have been charged with exaggerated security or other criminal offenses. Persons detained may be held for lengthy periods without trial, and an accused person’s defense rights are limited. A person arrested or convicted for religious offenses has little protection under the law.

North Korea. Genuine religious freedom does not exist, and particularly severe violations of religious freedom continued. The regime has severely repressed unauthorized religious groups in recent years; there are unconfirmed reports of the killing of members of underground Christian churches. In addition, religious persons who proselytize or who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating in the People’s Republic of China appear subject to arrest and harsh penalties, according to several unconfirmed reports. Defectors interviewed by a former humanitarian aid worker claimed that Christians were imprisoned and tortured for reading the Bible and talking about God and that some Christians were subjected to biological warfare experiments. The Government effectively bars outside observers from confirming these reports.

Vietnam. Respect for religious freedom remained poor or deteriorated for some groups, notably ethnic minority Protestants and some independent Buddhists, though it slightly improved for many practitioners. The Government continued to restrict significantly those publicly organized activities of religious groups that were not recognized by the Government. Oversight of recognized religions and harassment of followers of non-recognized religions varied from locality to locality, often as a result of varying local interpretations of national policy. Religious groups faced restrictions on training and ordaining clergy and on conducting educational and humanitarian activities. There have been credible reports for several years that local officials have continued to pressure many ethnic minority Protestants to recant their faith. According to credible reports, the police arbitrarily detained and sometimes beat religious believers, particularly in the mountainous ethnic minority areas. During the period covered by this report, one Protestant leader in the Northwest Highlands was reportedly beaten to death for refusing to recant his faith. In October 2003, authorities detained ten leaders of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, including two who had been freed from detention a few months earlier, after they held an organizational meeting without government permission in Binh Dinh Province. In 2003 the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and Government moved more formally to recognize and more fully to support the role of “legal” religious activity in society. At the same time, the CPV cited the overriding importance of “national unity” to assert more explicitly its control over religious groups.

State Hostility Toward Minority or Non-approved Religions

Some governments, while not implementing full control over minority religions, nevertheless are hostile and repressive to certain ones, or identify religious groups as “security threats.” These governments implement policies designed to intimidate and harass certain religious groups, demand adherents to recant their faith, or cause religious group members to flee the country.

Eritrea. The Government’s poor respect for religious freedom continued to worsen during the period covered by this report. The Government monitored, harassed, arrested, and detained members of Pentecostal, independent Evangelical groups, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There were numerous credible reports that over 400 members of non-sanctioned religious groups had been detained or imprisoned. Government restrictions make it difficult to determine the precise number of current religious prisoners, but it is likely more than 200. Prisoners of conscience are often subjected to inhumane treatment that includes poor living conditions and abuse. There were also numerous reports of physical torture and attempts at forced recantations. The Government denied visa applications for clergy who applied to travel to the country to meet with their congregations. Following a May 2002 government decree that all religious groups must register or cease all religious activities, the Government closed all religious facilities not belonging to the four sanctioned religious groups — Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Catholics, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. These closures, the Government’s refusal to authorize any registrations, and the restriction on holding religious meetings continued through the period covered by this report.

Iran. The Government engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Members of the country’s religious minorities — including Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, and Christians — reported imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on their religious beliefs. All religious minorities suffer varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education, and housing. Baha’is may not teach or practice their faith or maintain links with co-religionists abroad. They are subject to harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrest. While three Baha’is were released from prison (two upon the completion of lengthy prison sentences), one remained in state custody. Authorities initiated the destruction of two Baha’i holy sites. While Jews are a recognized religious minority, allegations of official discrimination are frequent. The Government’s anti-Israel policies, along with a perception among radical Muslims that all Jewish citizens support Zionism and the State of Israel, create a threatening atmosphere for the small community. The Government vigilantly enforces its prohibition on proselytizing activities by evangelical Christians by closing evangelical churches and arresting converts. Government harassment has included conspicuous monitoring outside Christian premises by Revolutionary Guards to discourage Muslims or converts from entering church premises, and demands for the presentation of the identity papers of worshippers inside. Sunni Muslims encounter religious discrimination at the local, provincial and national levels, and there were reports of discrimination against practitioners of the Sufi tradition.

Pakistan. The Government imposes limits on freedom of religion. The Constitution requires that laws be consistent with Islam and imposes some elements of Islamic law on both Muslims and religious minorities. The Government fails in many respects to protect the rights of religious minorities. There were instances in which the Government failed to intervene in cases of societal violence directed at minority religious groups. The lack of an adequate government response contributed to an atmosphere of impunity for acts of violence and intimidation against religious minorities. Relations between different religious groups frequently were tense, acts of sectarian and religious violence continued, and more than 100 deaths were attributed to sectarian violence during the period covered by this report. The worst religious violence was directed against the country’s Shi’a minority, which continued to be disproportionately the victims of individual and mass killings. Human rights groups report that there have been incidents in which persons from minority groups, especially Hindus and Christians, have been abducted and forcibly converted.

Saudi Arabia. Freedom of religion does not exist. Freedom of religion is not recognized or protected under the country’s laws, and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam. Citizens are denied the freedom to choose or change their beliefs. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. Muslims who do not adhere to the officially sanctioned Salafi (commonly called “Wahhabi”) tradition can face severe repercussions at the hands of Mutawwa’in (religious police). Members of the Shi’a minority continue to face political and economic discrimination, including limited employment opportunities, little representation in official institutions, and restrictions on the practice of their faith and on the building of mosques and community centers. Religious discrimination and sectarian tension in society continued during the period covered by this report, including ongoing denunciations of non-Muslim religions from government-sanctioned pulpits. There were frequent instances in which mosque preachers, whose salaries were paid by the government, used violent anti-Jewish and anti-Christian language in their sermons. The Government prohibits public non-Muslim religious activities. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture for engaging in religious activity that attracts official attention. Proselytizing by non-Muslims, including the distribution of non-Muslim religious materials such as Bibles, is illegal.

Sudan. The Government continues to engage in particularly severe violations of religious freedom. There are many restrictions on non-Muslims, non-Arab Muslims, and Muslims from tribes or sects not associated with the ruling party. The Government came into power by a coup in 1989 with a goal of Islamization and treats Islam as a state religion that must inspire the country’s laws, institutions, and policies. Applications to build mosques generally are granted; however, the process for applications to build churches is more difficult. The Guidance and Endowment Minister has denied building permits to most non-Muslim religious groups, alleging that local restrictions prohibit building places of worship in residential neighbourhoods. The last permit was issued around 1975. Many non-Muslims state they are treated as second-class citizens and discriminated against in government jobs and contracts. Some Muslims received preferential treatment regarding limited government services, such as access to medical care, and preferential treatment in court cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims. There were also reports that some conversions took place in order to secure jobs and access to social support services, which were largely available only through Islamic charities. In the west in the three Darfur states, a war between government-supported Arab Muslim militias and African Muslims continued throughout the reporting period, resulting in ethnic cleansing and redistribution of African Muslim populations in the region. There were reports that mosques belonging to African Muslims were destroyed in the conflict. That said, the conflict in Darfur is primarily an ethnic and racial conflict.

Turkmenistan. The Government continued to maintain tight control over the practice of religion, despite the presidential decrees signed in March and May that weakened a more restrictive Law on Religion passed in November 2003. The Government controls the leadership appointments of Russian Orthodox and Sunni Muslim groups. The Committee on Religious Affairs must approve all religious instruction. Local imams are forbidden from teaching Islamic theology; it may only be taught at the Theological College at Turkmen State University. The Government treats participation in or sponsorship of nontraditional religions as a potential threat to national security, making all groups coordinate their contact with all foreigners through the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Non-registered congregations are prohibited from gathering publicly, proselytizing, and disseminating religious materials. The law restricts the freedom to meet and to worship in private. The Government imposed a number of financial penalties on religious groups attempting to meet for worship, though there have been no reports of fines imposed since April. By the end of the period covered by this report, Government respect for religious freedom had improved. The restrictive law had been changed to permit the registration of four minority religious groups. Changes in Government policy toward minority religions have engendered a noticeable reduction in harassment of minority congregations.

Uzbekistan. The Government continued to commit numerous serious abuses of religious freedom. The Government permitted the operation of what it considers mainstream religions but invoked the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations to restrict the religious freedom of other groups. This law contravenes internationally recognized norms, and its registration requirements for religious organizations are strict and burdensome, though Christian churches generally are tolerated as long as they do not attempt to win converts among ethnic Uzbeks. The law prohibits or severely restricts activities such as proselytizing, importing and disseminating religious literature, and offering private religious instruction, and there are stiff civil and criminal penalties for violating this law. The Government continued its campaign against unauthorized Islamic groups it suspected of extremist sentiments or activities, arresting numerous alleged members of these groups and sentencing them to lengthy jail terms. Individuals arrested on suspicion of extremism often face particularly severe mistreatment in custody, including torture. During the period covered by this report, the Government released 704 individuals as part of a large-scale amnesty, and the number arrested continued to decline through the end of 2003. However, following a series of terrorist incidents in late March and early April, the Government took into custody up to two hundred individuals; the overwhelming majority of detainees were identified as having belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic political party, or other so-called “Wahabbi” groups. Terrorist charges aside, as in previous years, a large percentage of those taken into custody on charges of extremism were arrested arbitrarily. This campaign led authorities to be highly suspicious of those who were among the most observant, including frequent mosque attendees, bearded men, and veiled women, creating a climate of intimidation and fear for some devout believers. A number of minority religious groups, including congregations of a variety of Christian confessions, had difficulty satisfying the strict registration requirements set out by the law. As in previous years, Protestant groups with ethnic Uzbeks reported operating in a climate of harassment and fear.

State Neglect of Societal Discrimination Against, or Persecution of, Minority Religions

Some countries have legislation that discourages religious discrimination and persecution but fail to prevent conflicts, harassment or other harmful acts. Others do not respond with consistency and vigor to violations of religious freedom by nongovernmental entities or local law enforcement officials.

Bangladesh. Citizens generally are free to practice the religion of their choice; however, police are normally ineffective in upholding law and order and are often slow to assist members of religious minorities who have been victims of crimes. Human rights activists report an increase in religiously motivated violence. Religious minorities remain underrepresented in most government jobs, especially at the higher levels of the civil and foreign services. There were numerous reports of discrimination or violence against religious minorities; some (but not all) could be verified independently. The Government sometimes has failed to investigate the crimes and prosecute the perpetrators, who are often local gang leaders. Some foreign missionaries reported that internal security forces closely monitored their activities. The law neither permits citizens to proselytize nor prohibits proselytization; however, local authorities and communities often object to efforts to convert persons from Islam to other religions. Anti-Semitic attitudes are widespread among some Islamist activists and are sometimes evident in newspaper commentaries.

Egypt. The government continued to try citizens for unorthodox religious beliefs. The Government denied identity papers, birth certificates, and marriage licenses to members of the Baha’i community. There were numerous complaints of delayed church constructions. Christians are discriminated against in the public sector and in staff appointments to public universities. Christians were refused admission to Al-Azhar University, a publicly funded institution. Those accused of proselytizing have been harassed by police or arrested on charges of violating the penal code that prohibits the ridiculing or insulting of heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife. The Government does not recognize conversions from Islam to Christianity or other religions. Mosque and church repairs are now subject to the same laws, but enforcement of the laws appears to be much stricter for churches than for mosques. Incidents of blocked or delayed permits vary, often depending on the attitude of local security officials and the governor toward the church. There are credible reports of government harassment or lack of cooperation with Christian families that attempt to regain custody of their daughters in cases of marriage between an underage Christian girl and a Muslim boy. There were credible reports that three of four Shi’a Muslims arrested in December and held without charge were tortured in detention. In January, the Government established a National Human Rights Council with a Coptic Christian as its head. The Court of Cassation, the country’s highest appellate court, upheld the acquittal of 94 of 96 suspects who were charged with various offenses committed during the 2000 sectarian strife in al-Kush. The government failed to bring to justice those responsible for the murder of the 21 Christians killed in that conflict.

Georgia. Before the transfer of power in November, local police and security officials at times failed to protect nontraditional religious minority groups. The Georgian Orthodox church enjoys a tax-exempt status not available to other religious groups and lobbied Parliament and the government for laws that would grant it special status and restrict the activities of missionaries from nontraditional religions. Some members of nontraditional faiths were restricted in their worship by threats, intimidation, and the use of force by ultra-conservative Orthodox extremists whom the previous Government at times failed to control. On a number of occasions under the previous government, local police and security officials harassed non-Orthodox religious groups, particularly local and foreign missionaries, including members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Hare Krishnas. Because of the continuing violence against them, Jehovah’s Witnesses have refrained from public meetings in favor of gathering in private homes. For six weeks, protesters blockaded a home in Tbilisi to prevent Russian-speaking Pentecostals from attending worship services in the home. The USG repeatedly asked officials in the previous government to arrest the leader of the violent movement against minority religious groups, a de-frocked Orthodox priest, Basili Mkalavishvili. The new government arrested him in March, which has improved the situation noticeably for minority religious groups.

Guatemala. There is no government policy of discrimination, but a lack of resources and political will to enforce existing laws and to implement the Peace Accords limits the free expression of indigenous religious practice. Indigenous leaders note that Mayan culture does not receive the official recognition that it is due. The Government has not provided mechanisms for indigenous control of or free access to ceremonial sites considered sacred within indigenous culture. Individuals seeking to practice traditional religious ceremonies in sacred sites must pay an entrance fee or request permission far in advance from the Historical Anthropological Institute (a division of the Ministry of Culture). The Government’s use of sacred sites as revenue-generating tourist destinations is considered by some indigenous groups to be an affront to their spiritual rights. In October 2001, the Government swore in the Commission for the Definition of Sacred Places to address such issues. However, the Commission has not taken action to address these indigenous concerns since its inception.

India. The status of religious freedom improved in a number of ways, yet problems remain in some areas. During most of the period covered by this report, the central Government was led by a coalition called the National Democratic Alliance. The leading party in the coalition was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party with links to Hindu extremist groups that have been implicated in violent acts against Christians and Muslims. The BJP-led government sometimes did not act effectively to counter societal attacks against religious minorities and attempts by state and local governments to limit religious freedom. This failure resulted in part from the legal constraints inherent in the country’s federal structure, and in part from shortcomings in the law enforcement and justice systems. Tensions between Muslims and Hindus, and to an extent between Christians and Hindus, were a problem. Attacks on religious minorities occurred in several states. Some extremists saw ineffective investigation and prosecution of attacks on religious minorities as signals that such violence could be committed with impunity. There are anti-conversion laws in several states. In late May, a new coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, came to power and pledged to respect the country’s traditions of secular government and religious tolerance, and to pay particular attention to the rights of religious minorities.

Indonesia. The Government recognizes only five major religions. Persons of other faiths frequently experienced official discrimination, often in the context of civil registration of marriages and births, and the issuance of identity cards. Security forces occasionally tolerated discrimination against and abuse of religious groups by private actors, and the Government at times failed to punish perpetrators. Sectarian clashes claimed at least 46 lives in Central Sulawesi and at least 47 in the Malukus. The Government took steps to halt the surge in violence in the Malukus and Central Sulawesi. Nevertheless, some members of the Christian and Muslim communities in these conflict zones alleged that members of the military and police forces either carried out or supported some attacks.

Nigeria. While the Federal government generally respects religious freedom, there were some instances in which limits were placed on religious activity in order to address security and public safety concerns. Inter-religious tension between Christians and Muslims remained high in some areas of the country, and there were several violent economic-ethnic conflicts that took on religious overtones. Hundreds of people were killed in these clashes. Christians have alleged that Islam has been adopted as the de facto state religion in several northern states. The extension of Shari’a law to cover criminal offenses in many northern states generated a national debate on whether Shari’a punishments, such as amputation, stoning and caning, were considered “torture or inhuman or degrading treatment” under the Constitution. Many states prohibited open-air religious services held away from places of worship due to fears that these religious services would heighten inter-religious tensions or lead to violence. Several northern state governments continued to ban public proselytizing to avoid ethno-religious violence.

Sri Lanka. There was an overall deterioration of religious freedom due to the actions of extremists. In late 2003 and early 2004, Buddhist extremists destroyed Christian churches and harassed and abused pastors and congregants. There were over 100 accounts of attacks on Christian church buildings and members, several dozen of which were confirmed by diplomatic observers. NGOs have reported that in the majority of cases the police failed to protect churches and citizens from attack. In May an MP of the Jathika Hela Urumaya party presented a draft anti-conversion bill to Parliament. In June the Minister of Buddhist Affairs presented a separate draft anti-conversion bill to the Cabinet. It was not formally approved; however, it was sent to the Attorney General for a review that was ongoing at the end of the period covered by this report. There has been considerable public discussion of the bills, and many government officials expressed their concern about such legislation.

Discriminatory Legislation or Policies Prejudicial to Certain Religions

Some governments have enacted legislation that favors majority religions and discriminates against minority religions. This often results from a historical dominance of the majority religion and a bias against new or minority religions. In such countries segments of the citizenry are often skeptical of new religions.

Azerbaijan. Some religious groups reported delays in and denials of registration. Local authorities occasionally monitor religious services, and officials at times harassed nontraditional religious groups and, in particular, the Juma Mosque congregation whose imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, was not approved by the Government-sanctioned Board of Caucasus Muslims. The Baku city government has attempted to use registration as a requirement for occupying the Juma Mosque, which is registered as an historical landmark. In February and March, the city government asked the courts to evict the unregistered Juma Mosque community and its unauthorized imam from its historic mosque in Baku’s old city. On March 11, the Juma Mosque community filed for and received a postponement of its eviction pending an appeal. The Court of Appeals on April 22 upheld the Sabayil District Court decision to evict the community. Officials from the Ministry of Justice and police began the court-ordered eviction on the morning of June 30. The Law on Religious Freedom prohibits foreigners from proselytizing, which the Government strictly enforces. The law permits the production and dissemination of religious literature with the approval of the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations; however, the authorities also appeared to selectively restrict individuals from importing and distributing religious materials. Articles critical of Wahhabism and Christian missionaries appeared in many newspapers in the country.

Belarus. Conditions of religious freedom continued to be poor during the reporting period. Following a 2002 law strongly restricting religious freedom and a 2003 agreement between the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) and the Government elevating the BOC’s status, authorities continued to harass other religions and denominations. The new religion law requires all previously registered groups to reregister by November 2004 and banned immediately all religious activity by previously unregistered religious groups. The Government has repeatedly rejected the registration applications of some of these groups, including a number of Protestant denominations, the Belarusian Orthodox Autocephalous and some Eastern religions. Without registration, many of these groups find it difficult, if not impossible, to rent or purchase property to hold services. The government-run media continued to attack non-orthodox religions. All religious groups are required to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute literature. Government subsidies are limited to the BOC, which is reportedly able to enjoy beneficial tax rates on land and property. The sale and distribution of anti-Semitic literature through state press distributors, government agencies, and at stores and events affiliated with the BOC continued. The National Academy of Science continued to sell anti-Semitic literature.

Brunei. Practitioners of non-Muslim faiths are not allowed to proselytize, and Christian-based schools are not allowed to teach Christianity. All schools must give instruction in the Islamic faith to all students. The Government uses a range of municipal and planning laws and other legislation to restrict the expansion of all religions other than official Islam. The Government restricts the practice of non-Muslim religions by occasionally denying entry to foreign clergy or particular priests, bishops, or ministers; banning the importation of religious teaching materials or scriptures such as the Bible; and refusing permission to expand, repair, or build churches, temples, or shrines. Muslims who wish to change or renounce their religion face considerable difficulties.

Israel and the Occupied Territories. The Israeli Declaration of Independence describes the country as a “Jewish state,” but also provides for full social and political equality regardless of political affiliation. However, some non-Jews continued to experience discrimination in the areas of education, housing, and employment. Schools in Arab areas, including Arab parochial schools, receive significantly fewer resources than comparable Jewish schools. Building codes for places of worship were selectively enforced based on religion. Non-Jews were underrepresented in the student bodies and faculties of most universities. The law does not allow for civil marriages for its citizens and does not recognize Jewish marriages unless performed by Orthodox officials. Governmental and societal discrimination against Israeli-Arabs continued during the reporting period, due primarily to Palestinian terrorism and the Government’s military actions in the Occupied Territories. The Government refused to grant residence visas to some 130 Catholic clergy assigned by the Vatican to fulfill religious obligations in Israel and the occupied territories; however, there was considerable improvement on this issue toward the end of the reporting period. According to church officials, this number represents a 60 percent increase over the previous year. The Israeli Government seized land belonging to several religious institutions to build its separation-barrier between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The separation-barrier and its checkpoints also impede the movement of clergy between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, and the movement of congregations between their homes and places of worship. The Palestinian Authority (PA) failed to halt several cases of seizures of Christian-owned land by criminal gangs, and there were credible reports that PA security forces and judicial officials colluded with members of these gangs to illegally extort property from Christian landowners.

Malaysia. Sunni Islam is the official religion, and the practice of non-Sunni Islamic beliefs is restricted significantly. Non-Muslims are free to practice their religious beliefs with few restrictions. Proselytizing of Muslims by members of other religions is strictly prohibited. The Government discourages but does not ban the distribution in peninsular Malaysia of Malay-language translations of the Bible, Christian tapes, and other printed materials. The Government continues to monitor the activities of the Shi’a minority. The Government is concerned that “deviationist” teachings could cause divisions among Muslims. Members of such groups can be arrested and detained, with the consent of the Islamic court, in order to be “rehabilitated” and returned to the “true path of Islam.”

Moldova. A number of minority religious groups in the separatist region of Transnistria, an area not under the control of the central government, were denied registration and were subjected to official harassment. There were several acts of ant-Semitism in Transnistria including the desecration of a Jewish cemetery and the attempted burning of a synagogue. There is no state religion; however, the Moldovan Orthodox Church receives some special treatment from the government in Moldova proper.

Russia. The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, conditions deteriorated somewhat for some minority religious faiths. Popular attitudes toward traditionally Muslim ethnic groups are negative in many regions, and there are manifestations of anti-Semitism, as well as societal hostility, toward Catholics and newer, non-Orthodox religions. Instances of religiously motivated violence occur, although it often is difficult to determine whether xenophobia, religion, or ethnic prejudices were the primary motivation behind violent attacks. Government officials have spoken out against anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Several aspects of the 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience provide a basis for actions that restrict religious freedom. These include the provisions allowing the Government to ban religious organizations and establishing procedures for their liquidation (dissolution as a legal entity), such as the banning and liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow in early 2004. Activists claiming ties to the Russian Orthodox Church disseminated negative publications and staged demonstrations throughout the country against Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and religions new to the country. However, a large number of foreign missionaries operate in the country, many from Protestant denominations. Human rights groups and religious minority groups have criticized the Procurator General for encouraging legal action against some minority religions and for giving an imprimatur of authority to materials that are biased against Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and others. A court recently ordered the closing of an anti-Semitic newspaper, and some religious groups have benefited from property restitution. The federal security bureau, the Procurator, and other official agencies have conducted campaigns of harassment against Muslims, Catholics, some Protestant groups, and newer religious movements.

Turkey. A sharp debate continued over the country’s definition of “secularism” and the proper role of religion in society. The Government imposes some restrictions on Muslim and other religious groups and on Muslim religious expression, such as religious dress, in government offices and state run institutions, including universities. Although Parliament has removed some of the legal obstacles for religious minorities, such as building and maintaining churches, some Protestant Christian groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’is continued to face restrictions and occasional harassment, including detentions for alleged proselytizing or unauthorized meetings. The more radical Islamic groups continued to express anti-Jewish sentiments. Additionally, persons wishing to convert from Islam experienced social harassment and violence from relatives and neighbors. Some members of non-Muslim religious groups claim they have limited career opportunities in government or military service.

Denouncing Certain Religions by Affiliating Them with Dangerous “Cults” or “Sects”

Some Western European governments continue to use restrictive legislation and practices to brand minority religions as dangerous “cults.”

Belgium. The Government continued to observe and monitor some groups that a parliamentary commission’s unofficial report listed as having been investigated as possible “harmful sects.” In July 2003, a report issued by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights asserted that the Government had not taken any effective measures to counteract the hostility and discrimination suffered by members of religious groups depicted as “sects.” The Government has denied visas to volunteer teachers of the Assemblies of God because they did not qualify under visa limitations on foreign teachers. Since late 2003, the Church of Scientology International has sought to establish a dialogue with the Government to address the Government’s perceptions and concerns. Due to ongoing Belgian criminal investigations of some local Belgium Church of Scientology officials, the Government has not yet agreed to their request.

France. Since being established in November 2002, an inter-ministerial Government organization has observed and analyzed the movements of “sects” and “cults” that allegedly constitute a threat to public order or that violate French law. The organization also coordinated responses to abuses by cults, informed the public about potential risks, and helped victims to receive aid. The 2001 About-Picard law remained in force, though its provisions for the dissolution of groups have never been applied. In 2002, the Council of Europe passed a resolution critical of the law and invited the Government to reconsider it. In March, the Government passed a law (to be implemented in September) that restricts the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” — including Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, and large crosses — in public schools. Implementing regulations finalized in May provide for the display of “discreet religious symbols” and grant considerable discretion to individual schools to interpret and implement the law. Some religious leaders, human rights groups, and foreign governments voiced concerns about the law’s potential to restrict religious freedom.

Germany. The Church of Scientology, which operates 18 churches and missions, remained under scrutiny by both federal and some state officials, who contend that its ideology is opposed to the democratic constitutional order. The Hamburg Office for the Protection of the Constitution published “The Intelligence Service of the Scientology Organization,” which outlines its claim that Scientology has tried to infiltrate governments, offices and companies and that the Church spies on its opponents, defames them, and “destroys” them. Scientologists continued to report instances of societal discrimination.

Part II: Significant Improvements in the Promotion of Religious Freedom

The International Religious Freedom Act prescribes that a section of the Executive Summary identify countries where “significant improvement in the protection and promotion” of religious freedom has occurred.

Afghanistan. The Constitution, ratified in January, helps secure religious freedom and equal rights for women and minorities that had been severely restricted under the Taliban regime. Article 7 commits the state to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international treaties and conventions to which the country is a party; these documents include robust protections for religious freedom. Since the ratification of the constitution in January, there have been few instances of religious intolerance. There have been no more reported blasphemy cases or attacks on mullahs or mosques. The Government also encouraged Sikhs, Hindus, and other minorities to return, and there was a small but steady flow of returnees during the year. A curriculum and textbooks that emphasize general Islamic terms and principles steadily replaced the preaching of extremist views in schools. All Kabul schools and the surrounding provinces were using the new texts, which covered just under half of all provinces.

Georgia. The President, the National Security Council Secretary, and the Government Ombudsman have been effective advocates for religious freedom and have made numerous public speeches and appearances in support of minority religious groups. The Human Rights unit in the Legal Department of the Procuracy is charged with protecting human rights, including religious freedom. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (including the police) and the Procuracy in certain instances have become more active in the protection of religious freedom. After the transfer of power in November 2003, they pursued criminal cases against Orthodox extremists for their continued attacks against religious minorities. In March, the new government arrested the defrocked Orthodox priest, Basili Mkalavishvili, the leader of a violent movement of Orthodox believers who was responsible for hundreds of violent attacks against religious minorities. The USG and others in the international community had long urged this arrest, which has led to a noticeable improvement in lessening the harassment of minority Protestant believers.

India. The status of religious freedom improved in a number of ways during the period covered by this report, yet problems remained in some areas. By the end of its administration, the coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had adopted a more inclusive rhetoric regarding minorities and took some steps to decrease violence. In late May, a new coalition came to power that pledged to respect the country’s traditions of secular government and religious tolerance and to pay particular attention to the rights of religious minorities. Both new Prime Minister Singh and President Abdul Kalam have spoken out strongly against the riots in Gujarat state in 2002 that left at least 1,000 Muslims dead, and they have highlighted the need to provide equal justice and opportunities for religious minorities. The GOI has already taken some positive steps. Shortly after the elections, the state of Tamil Nadu announced the repeal of its anti-conversion law. There also has been some progress on conflict resolution in Gujarat. In April, the Supreme Court ordered the re-trial of the Best Bakery case, in which Hindu extremists killed 14 Muslims when the bakery was attacked by a large mob. As a way of ensuring the fairness of the process, the court ordered the trial to be moved from Gujarat to the jurisdiction of Mumbai. More recently, it ruled that the Gujarat government must re-open nearly 2000 cases stemming from the 2002 violence. In May, shortly after the elections, federal security forces were sent across the state to protect Muslim riot survivors and key witnesses in riot cases.

Turkey. In June 2003, Parliament approved an amendment to the Act on Construction, replacing the word “mosques” with “houses of worship,” which in theory removes a legal obstacle to the establishment of non-Muslim religious facilities. In December 2003, the Interior Ministry issued a circular summarizing the legal amendments and directing provincial governors to “facilitate” efforts by religious communities to open places of worship. In January, the Government abolished the Minorities Subcommittee, established by secret regulation in 1962 to monitor minorities as potential threats to the country, and replaced it with the Board to Assess Problems of Minorities. According to the Government, the Board will work to support the rights of non-Muslims. In March, authorities approved an application by a group of German-speaking Christians to establish a religious/charity association in Alanya, Antalya Province. In the past, authorities have routinely rejected such applications on the grounds that the Act on Associations prohibits associations based on religion. Members of the Christian community reported that the Government revised school textbooks in response to complaints about inaccurate, negative references to Christianity. They said the revised versions represent a significant improvement.

Turkmenistan. While serious violations of religious freedom continued in Turkmenistan, the Government made progress in some areas. Government respect for religious freedom, both from a legislative perspective and in practice, improved during the period covered by this report. However, the Government continued to monitor all forms of religious expression. All groups must register in order to gain legal status with the Government. Until recently, the only religions that were registered successfully were Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which are controlled by the Government; by the end of the reporting period, four minority religious groups had been registered. The March amendments to the law on religious organizations and subsequent Presidential decrees have enabled the Ministry of Justice to facilitate registration of some religious congregations and have engendered a noticeable reduction in harassment of minority congregations. The Government also repealed some criminal penalties for unauthorized religious activity. The President amnestied six members of Jehovah’s Witnesses serving prison sentences for conscientious objection to military service.

Part III: U.S. Actions to Advance International Religious Freedom

This section highlights U.S. Government actions in selected countries. Further details may be found in the individual country reports.

Azerbaijan. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom urged senior Azeri officials to respect the religious freedom of the Juma Mosque Community and its imam and pressed for the return of the mosque to its community. The Embassy closely monitored the court case against the Juma Mosque Community and its imam, and met with government and religious leaders to urge them to uphold international religious freedom standards. The Ambassador conveyed U.S. concerns about the religious registration process to the Chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations and expressed strong concerns about the Government’s commitment to religious freedom both privately and publicly. The Embassy also repeatedly expressed objections to the censorship of religious literature. The Ambassador and Embassy officers maintain close contacts with leading Muslim, Russian Orthodox, and Jewish religious officials, and regularly meet with members of non-official religious groups in order to monitor religious freedom.

Belarus. U.S. Embassy staff maintained regular contact with representatives of religious groups, the Civil Initiative for Religious Freedom, and government officials responsible for religious affairs, and they met with resident and visiting American citizens of various religious faiths to discuss religious freedom issues. The Embassy closely monitored the continued sale of anti-Semitic and xenophobic literature at shops and events linked with the Belarusian Orthodox Church and state media distributors. Embassy staff, including the Ambassador, attended several events hosted by various religious groups. The Embassy regularly discussed religious issues with representatives of foreign diplomatic missions in Belarus. The Embassy continued to host roundtables of religious leaders to discuss issues pertaining to religious freedom and government harassment.

Burma. The Secretary of State again designated Burma as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The U.S. Government promoted religious freedom with all facets of society, including government officials, religious leaders, private citizens, scholars, diplomats or other governments, and international business and media representatives. Embassy Staff offered support to local nongovernmental organizations and religious leaders and acted as a conduit for exchanging information with otherwise isolated human rights NGOs and religious leaders.

China. The Secretary of State again designated China as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and the Consulates General in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenyang made a concerted effort to encourage greater religious freedom in the country, using both focused external pressure on abuses and support for positive trends within the country. U.S. officials protested vigorously when there were credible reports of religious harassment or discrimination in violation of international laws and standards, and requested information in cases of alleged mistreatment in which the facts were incomplete or contradictory. At the same time, U.S. officials made the case to the country’s leaders that freedom of religion strengthens, rather than harms, the country. In December 2003, President Bush met with Premier Wen Jiabao in Washington and called for greater religious tolerance. The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor traveled to China to discuss human rights and religious freedom issues with the Chinese Government. Staff members of the Office for International Religious Freedom also traveled to China to investigate religious freedom conditions, and to press for the release of religious prisoners and improvements in religious freedom policies.

Egypt. The U.S. President, the Secretary of State, the Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, the U.S. Ambassador and Embassy officials have raised religious freedom concerns in bilateral dialogue with Egyptian leaders. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom discussed religious freedom violations with senior Egyptian officials. Officials from the Office of International Religious Freedom traveled to Egypt and met with minister-level and other governmental officials, religious leaders and NGOs. The Embassy maintained an active dialogue with the leaders of the Christian and Muslim religious communities, human rights groups, and other activists. The Embassy investigated complaints of official religious discrimination brought to its attention. An interagency small-grants program managed by the U.S. Embassy supports projects that promote tolerance and mutual respect between members of different religious communities.

Eritrea. In September 2004 the Secretary of State designated Eritrea as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The U.S. Ambassador and the other Embassy officers have raised the cases of detentions and restrictions on sanctioned religious groups with government officials in the President’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice and the leaders of the sole legal party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom pressed senior Eritrean officials to release religious prisoners, and permit closed churches to re-open. Senior sta

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday September 16, 2004.
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