The State Department's annual report on international religious freedom has failed to single out a number of egregious violators that are members of the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition, Human Rights Watch said today.
The report, released today, candidly described violations of religious freedom around the world, but failed to designate Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan as "Countries of Particular Concern."
"Clearly, the Administration doesn't want to offend key allies in the coalition through excessive truth-telling," said Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. "The irony is that getting too close to countries that crush religious freedom may be more dangerous for America right now than keeping its distance-particularly when the religion being crushed is Islam."
Among those countries not named is Uzbekistan, where several thousand non-violent Muslims have been arrested in the last three years for practicing their faith outside state controls. Uzbekistan is hosting U.S. forces involved in operations in Afghanistan.
The State Department report acknowledges that the Uzbek government has committed "abuses against many devout Muslims for their religious beliefs" - arresting people for proselytizing, for private teaching of religious principles, for wearing of religious clothing in public, and for distributing religious literature. It also acknowledges that authorities systematically torture religious prisoners.
"By not designating Uzbekistan a 'Country of Particular Concern,' the Administration missed an easy opportunity to show that the war on terrorism cannot be a campaign against Islam," Malinowski said.
Saudi Arabia was not designated, although, as State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said today, "there is essentially no religious freedom" there. Christians working in the country are forbidden to conduct any form of public worship. The country's Shi`a Muslim minority faces severe discrimination. Conservative Sunni clerics associated with the government have publicly denigrated Shi`a as "apostates" and "non-believers" because some of their religious practices are at odds with the strict Wahhabi doctrine imposed by the country's rulers. In few countries in the world is the denial of religious freedom so integral to the self-conception and ethos of the government.
Also not designated was Turkmenistan, which suppresses all forms of religious practice other than state-sanctioned Islam and Russian orthodoxy. Hundreds of Protestants, followers of Hare Krishna and other minority religions have been harassed, questioned by police, and threatened with arrest for exercising their religious convictions. Turkmenistan is the only state in the former Soviet Union where authorities have confiscated and destroyed houses of worship (Seventh Day Adventist, Hare Krishna, and Muslim).
China was designated a "Country of Particular Concern," and the report's analysis of abuses of religious freedom is generally accurate, with one exception: The reporting on Xinjiang, the mainly-Muslim region of northwest China, is strikingly less critical than last year's. The government's "Strike Hard" anti-crime campaign, launched nationwide in April 2001, has led to many arbitrary arrests and summary executions in Xinjiang. Separatism and religion appear to be as much the targets as ordinary crime. Under "Strike Hard," people have been arrested, for example, for having "illegal religious publications" in their possession. Last year's State Department report accurately described a "harsh crackdown on Uighur Muslims...that failed to distinguish between those involved with illegal religious activities and those involved in ethnic separatism or terrorist activities." Today's report, by contrast, merely notes that "government sensitivity to Muslim community concerns is varied...and (in areas where there has been violence attributed to separatists) police crackdown on Muslim religious activity and places of worship accused of supporting separatism" in Xinjiang. The "Strike Hard" campaign isn't even mentioned.
Also designated were Burma, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan and the Taliban. Under the International Religious Freedom Act, when a country is named to this list, the Secretary of State must choose from an optional menu of steps, from diplomatic pressure to the imposition of sanctions. Most of the designated governments, however, are already subject to U.S. sanctions.
"The State Department has been least likely to use this tool in the countries where it might have the most impact," Malinowski said.