Religious freedom report criticizes Egypt and Obama

WASHINGTON — Egypt has been added to a list of the world's most severe violators of religious rights. The list was released today in the 12th Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)/, an independent and bipartisan group that advises the State Department on religious liberty worldwide.

The 380-page report also criticized the Obama administration for not taking action on previous recommendations to add offending countries to its list of "Countries of Particular Concern" or CPCs.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

President Barack Obama gestures while speaking to reporters about the controversy over his birth certificate and true nationality, Wednesday, April 27, 2011, at the White House in Washington.

According to the commission, CPCs are governments that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom that are "systematic, ongoing, and egregious including acts such as torture, prolonged detention without charges, disappearances, or other flagrant denials of rights."

"CPCs are nations whose conduct marks them as the world's worst religious freedom violators and human rights abusers," said Leonard Leo, USCIRF chair, in an email. "In the case of Egypt, instances of severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically since the release of last year's report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities. Since President Mubarak's resignation from office in February, such violence continues unabated without the government's bringing the perpetrators to justice."

There are already eight countries on the State Department's list of CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. These are the same countries that the Bush administration designated right before he left office.

Besides Egypt, today's report recommends that the State Department adds Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as CPCs. The report, however, expressed frustration with the Obama administration. "(T)he U.S. government should designate CPCs in a timely manner, but has generally failed to do so," the report said. "So far, the Obama administration has made no CPC designations of its own. It is important that the Obama administration issue designations soon, in order to bring the timing of these deliberations into closer proximity to the issuance of the Annual Report, upon which such decisions are to be based."

Leo said, "The Obama administration continues to rely on the prior administration's designations but hopefully will make new designations and apply meaningful actions very soon in order to underscore America's resolve in bolstering the freedom of religion or belief around the world."

Once a country is officially designated as a CPC, the report says that the administration is supposed to evaluate the possibility of sanctioning those offending nations. The report complains that the Obama administration has underutilized the options available for bringing pressure on countries violating religious freedom. Out of the eight countries currently designated as CPCs by the State Department, only Eritrea has sanctions that were imposed specifically because of religious freedom violations. What usually happens is that the administration will take current sanctions that were imposed on a country earlier for other reasons and just increase them when the country is designated as a CPC. The report said however, that new and distinct sanctions must be tied to a country specifically because it was designated as a CPC — otherwise the sanctions will not have any impact on religious freedom.

In addition to those countries that the report recommends as CPCs, the commission also names "Watch List Countries" that have serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments. Those countries are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela.

"Within the ranks of both CPCs and Watch List countries, impunity has become a matter of escalating alarm," Leo said. "A number of countries are idly standing by in the face of violent attacks against religious minorities and even dissenting members of majority faiths, and this imperils religious freedom much the same way that direct state-sponsored repression does. This year's Annual Report spotlights the problem and advances concrete solutions that will improve religious freedom while weaving it more tightly into the fabric of national security and U.S. foreign policy."

Last year's report criticized President Obama for beginning to use the term "freedom of worship," a weaker term than the internationally recognized "freedom of religion." The current report praised Obama's return to using the broader term "freedom of religion," such as in his January press conference with President Hu Jintao of China.

The report also noted the confirmation of Dr. Suzan D. Johnson Cook as the State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the highest-ranking U.S. official on religious freedom. It lamented, however, that the relative placement of Cook in the State Department hierarchy shows a low level of importance given to the issue — particularly when it is compared with other Ambassadors-at-Large (for example Global Women's Issues, Counterterrorism and War Crime Issues) who have direct access to the Secretary. The Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom has three intermediate officials between her and the Secretary.

Today's report is the 12th released by the commission since its creation in 1998 by International Religious Freedom Act.

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