China has suffered a sharp decline in religious freedom while Burma has made little progress on the issue despite democratic reforms, the U.S. State Department said in an annual report to American lawmakers.
It said that abuse of religious freedom remained a concern in Vietnam, including cases involving arrests, detentions, and convictions of religious practitioners.
The State Department’s 2011 Religious Freedom Report that reviewed the situation across the globe last year slammed China, saying there was a “marked deterioration” in Beijing’s respect for and protection of religious rights in the world’s most populous nation.
It cited increased restrictions on Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns and clampdowns on religious practices ahead of sensitive anniversaries, as well as “severe” repression of Muslim Uyghurs in the volatile Xinjiang region.
Burma, which ushered in a new, nominally civilian government in 2011, “took steps” during the year toward overcoming its legacy of “intense religious oppression,” but continued to impose restrictions and monitor meetings by religious organizations, it said.
In Vietnam, authorities held religious prisoners, refused to allow churches to register, and harassed believers, the report said, amid calls by rights groups to President Barack Obama’s administration to re-designate the country as a “Country of Particular Concern”—a label that the U.S. government gives to countries for ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.
At a briefing on the release of the report, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious freedom Suzan Johnson Cook said that freedom of religion went “hand in hand” with freedoms of expression, speech, and assembly, and that governments in Asia and around the world had “misused” laws to restrict freedom of all three.
“Religious freedom is often the bellwether for other human rights,” including freedom of expression, speech, and assembly, she said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the "global picture" for religious freedom, with over a billion people worldwide living under governments that "systematically" repress people's beliefs, was "sobering."
"When it comes to this human right, this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies, the world is sliding backwards," she said, speaking at the Carnegie Center for International Peace after the report's release.
Chinese authorities’ restrictions on religious practices among Tibetans and Uyghurs were “severe,” the report said.
The State Department placed blame on authorities for stoking tensions that led to the recent wave of Tibetans setting themselves on fire in protest against Chinese rule.
"Official interference in the practice of these religious traditions exacerbated grievances and contributed to at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans in 2011," the report said.
Further self-immolations this year—which brought the current total to 44 since 2009—continue to demonstrate Tibetans’ “desperation” under China’s rule, Johnson Cook said.
In China’s far northwestern Xinjiang region, home to the mostly Muslim Uyghur group, religious restrictions were closely tied to political repression, the report said.
The government’s concern over “separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism” had contributed to restrictions on Muslims, with authorities “failing to distinguish between peaceful religious practice and criminal or terrorist activities,” it said.
Outside of Tibet and Xinjiang, Chinese officials restricted the activities of both registered and unregistered groups, including members of underground Christian “house churches” and members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, the report said.
Some Falun Gong adherents had reportedly been held in ankang psychiatric institutions, while authorities had raided house churches and confiscated Bibles, it said.
Individuals had been harassed or detained for assembling for worship, expressing their beliefs in public and private, and publishing religious texts, it added.
The U.S. had raised issues concerning house churches, Falun Gong, Uyghur Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists, during talks at the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue in Washington last week, Johnson Cook said.
“That’s a continuing conversation and we will not let up,” she said.
The report slammed the Burmese government for marginalizing the Muslim Rohingya, a minority which has been at the center of deadly communal violence in western Burma’s Rakhine state since June of this year.
“The government continued to refuse to recognize the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority as citizens and imposed restrictions on their movement and marriage,” it said.
At the same time, it praised Burma for the “limited” steps it took toward greater religious freedom during 2011, when a new government took power in the country after decades of rule under the former military junta.
Burma had eased some restrictions on building churches and had generally permitted followers of registered religious groups to worship as they chose, the report said.
But it had also “frequently limited religious freedom” and continued to impose restrictions on certain religious activities.
Some Buddhist monks arrested during the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” protest movement led by monasteries had been released, it said, but noted others remained in prison serving long sentences.
In Vietnam, government practices and “bureaucratic impediments” had restricted religious freedom in 2011, while reports of rights abuses remained at levels consistent to the year before, the State Department said.
Christians had faced particular challenges in the country, the report said, noting an incident of detainees being treated harshly after a protest over the closing of a cemetery in Con Dau parish.
Authorities had harassed individuals for their religious beliefs and some religious groups for their political activism, it added.
But it praised authorities for allowing new religious groups to register and for pursuing talks with the Vatican concerning the country’s Catholic community.
The State Department praised Laos for a “slight trend” toward improvement in protection of religious rights through public education outreach in the provinces.
But it slammed local and district-level authorities for being lax in their enforcement of laws and policies protecting religious freedom.
Local authorities sometimes demonstrated suspicion of non-Buddhist communities and showed intolerance for minority groups, particularly Protestant Christians, it said.
Cambodia was one of the few Southeast Asian nations to stand out for relative tolerance of religious rights in 2011, the report said.
The State Department said there were no reports of abuses of religious freedom and few reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religion last year.
“The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom,” it said.
Religious freedom “simply does not exist” in isolated North Korea, the report said.
“Government policy continued to interfere with individuals’ ability to choose and to manifest their religious beliefs,” the report said.
Though little is known about the isolated country, some reports from refugees and defectors and missionaries indicated that North Koreans who had contact with foreigners or missionaries were subjected to harsh penalties, it said.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.