State Department report on religious freedom cites Iraq and China

October 15, 2002

A State Department report on religious freedom worldwide has cited continuing repression in Iraq and China--and mentioned five other countries where believers are persecuted.

The report, released October 7, says that Iraq has desecrated Shiite Muslim mosques and holy sites, disrupted religious ceremonies and interfered with religious education. The Shiites are a majority in the southern part of Iraq and have been viewed with suspicion by the Sunni-dominated regime in Baghdad.

Shiites are also persecuted in Saudi Arabia but the report says the repression there is not as violent as in Iraq. 'Freedom of religion does not exist' in Saudi Arabia, the report adds.

In its comments about the situation in China, the report says that 'unapproved religious and spiritual groups remained under scrutiny and, in some cases, harsh repression.' Only government-sanctioned churches and religious organizations have any kind of religious freedom, largely because the government continues its efforts 'to prevent the rise of possible sources of authority outside of the control of the government.'

In releasing the report, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that it sheds a much-needed light on governments that make it 'difficult and even dangerous for people to follow the dictates of their conscience and to practice their faith.' He said that American leaders 'categorically reject the notion that the security or stability of any country requires the repression of members of any faith.'

The report, issued every year since 1999 as required by Congress, also cited five other countries. It said that Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) continues to view religious freedom as a threat to national security. In Cuba, those who worship in officially sanctioned churches still face surveillance by security forces. In Laos, the government inhibits religious practice by everyone but especially those belonging to minority religions that fall outside of mainstream Buddhism, such as Christianity. In North Korea, human rights groups outside the country have provided reports that members of so-called 'underground churches' have been harassed, beaten and even killed. In Vietnam, reports indicate that Hmong Christians in some villages have been forced by local villagers to renounce their faith.

Only Afghanistan is credited with making any significant improvement in religious freedom, especially since the fall of the rigid Taliban led to the establishment of a much more tolerant government.

'Religious freedom, one of the most fundamental of human rights, is a liberty long championed by the United States and cherished by the American people,' the introduction to the report says. 'It is the policy of the United States government to promote religious freedom worldwide, for every human being, regardless of religion, race, culture or nationality.' It adds that 'the promotion of religious liberty as a foreign policy goal was given increased emphasis with the passage of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.'

The religious freedom policy is also 'a means of fighting the war on terrorism,' according to the report. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, 'highlighted the reality that people can and do exploit religion for terrible purposes, in some cases manipulating and destroying other human beings as mere instruments in the process.' The attacks have 'raised the stakes for U.S. religious freedom policy' and could provide 'one of the most effective and sustainable antidotes, not only to religious persecution and discrimination, but also to religion-based violence.'

(The full report is on the State Department's web site at www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2002/13606.htm.)

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