Religious Freedom Panel Finds No Progress in 'Countries of Concern'

By Richard Finney
myanmar-violence-april2014.gif Myanmar policemen carry an injured man during an anti-Muslim riot in Hlegu in the outskirts of Yangon, April 4, 2014.

A U.S. bipartisan commission called Wednesday for Myanmar, China, and North Korea to be kept on a State Department blacklist of the world’s worst violators of religious freedoms, and for Vietnam to be returned to the list from which it was removed eight years ago.

Though Vietnam’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2004 produced “tangible religious freedom improvements,” the removal of that designation two years later following bilateral negotiations was “premature,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in an annual report.

“The government of Vietnam controls all religious activities through law and administrative oversight, severely restricts independent religious practice, and represses individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority,” USCIRF said.

“USCIRF has continued to recommend CPC status for Vietnam, and has noted backsliding on religious freedom in Vietnam since the CPC designation was lifted,” the group said.

For its 2014 report, USCIRF recommends that Secretary of State John Kerry maintain eight countries on the CPC list:  Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

Open to reform?

Speaking in an interview, USCIRF vice chair Katrina Lantos Swett said that despite significant political reforms undertaken in Myanmar over the last two years, these “have really not translated into any meaningful protection for religious freedom.”

Citing a renewed wave of violence by Buddhist-led mobs against Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingyas and other Muslim communities during the last year, Swett said “We feel quite strongly that Burma [Myanmar] needs to continue to be designated as a CPC.”

As Myanmar’s government is now more open to reform and eager to strengthen ties, though, the U.S. should negotiate an agreement with the formerly military-ruled country that includes “specific benchmarks relating to religious freedoms concerns,” Swett said.

“And that kind of a long-term agreement with those benchmarks can really form a pathway towards moving Burma off the CPC list.”

“But the facts on the ground there are still deeply concerning” she said.

Believers at risk

China meanwhile remains “resistant to progress in this area, and is absolutely still worthy of CPC designation,” Swett said.

Calling China an “equal-opportunity abuser,” Swett said that Chinese authorities routinely restrict the activities of independent Catholics and Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uyghur Muslims.

“But really any independent religious expression is targeted in China,” she said. “So unless practitioners of whatever faith basically submit to government-controlled religious organizations and religious worship, they are at risk of becoming a target.”

In its report, USCIRF noted recent efforts by Chinese authorities to “guide” unregistered Protestants and Catholics to join state-sanctioned churches and to “break” large Protestant house churches into smaller groups.

“According to reports by Protestant house church leaders, 1,470 people were detained in the past year and 10 were given sentences of more than one year, both increases from the previous year,” USCIRF said.

Members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement remain the most-persecuted group in China though, Swett said.

“We have credible reports of deaths in custody, psychiatric experiments, and torture, and there is increasingly credible evidence of possible organ harvesting from Falun Gong prisoners.”

'Shocking' repression

In North Korea, also listed as a CPC, “torture, execution, and imprisonment are a widespread part of the landscape for religious believers and practitioners,” Swett said, calling the degree of religious repression in the harshly governed country “shocking.”

“North Korea on a whole range of human rights and religious freedom issues is certainly one of the real black holes in the world today,” Swett said.

Thousands of religious believers and their families, including refugees sent back from China, are now held in labor camps across North Korea, USCIRF said in its report.

“It is estimated that there are 15,000 to 200,000 prisoners currently in these camps, with as many as 15,000 incarcerated for religious activity,” USCIRF said, adding, “Religious prisoners reportedly are treated worse than other inmates and [are] subject to constant abuse to force them to renounce their faith.”

Watch List

The Southeast Asian country of Laos meanwhile remains on USCIRF’s Tier 2 Watch List for continuing “serious religious freedom abuses, particularly in ethnic minority areas,” the rights group said in its report.

“The Lao government’s toleration of religious activity continues to vary by region, ethnicity, and religious group,” USCIRF said.

Though conditions have improved for the country’s majority Buddhist communities and for groups in urban areas, “there continue to be violations of religious freedoms for the minority Protestant communities,” Swett said.

“[These include] detentions, surveillance, harassment, and forced renunciations of faith,” she said.

“And so we have not seen sufficient progress to take Laos off of Tier 2.”

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