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|Religious freedom worsens in Jordan, Algeria
Religious freedom took a turn for the worse in the last year in China, Egypt and Iran, but also in normally more tolerant countries like Jordan and Algeria, the State Department said Friday.
The State Department's annual report on religious freedoms around the world for the period between July 2007 and July 2008 also singled out North Korea again as among the worst violators of religious freedom.
But there were new concerns about Jordan and Algeria, "which traditionally have been more respectful of minority faiths," according to John Hanford III, the ambassador at large for religious freedom.
"The government's de factor and de jure policies have precipitated a decline in the status of religious freedom during this reporting period," the report said.
In February, the government began enforcing an ordinance which "makes proselytizing a criminal offense," it said.
It said that the ordinance mandates "that anyone who makes, stores or distributes printed documents, or audiovisual materials with the intent of 'shaking the faith' of a Muslim may also face a maximum of five years' imprisonment" and a fine equivalent to 7,100 dollars.
"In Jordan, a Sharia Court found a convert from Islam to Christianity guilty of apostasy, annulled his marriage, and declared him to be without any religious identity," said Hanford, who oversaw the report.
"The Jordanian government also harassed individuals and organizations based on religious affiliation," he said.
In China,"the government's repression of religious freedom intensified in some areas, including in Tibetan areas and in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," it said.
The Uighurs form an ethnic Muslim majority in Western China.
During the Olympics, Xinjiang suffered a series of violent attacks, including the most deadly which killed 16 police officers in Kashgar on August 4.
In March, violent riots erupted in Tibet which left 203 dead, according to Tibetans in exile, although Beijing spoke of 21 people killed by "rioters," saying it had killed a Tibetan rebel.
The report also said: "Some unregistered Protestant religious groups in Beijing also reported intensified harassment from government authorities in the lead up to the 2008 Olympic Games."
In Egypt, the report said that "several government measures and practices undertaken during the reporting period contributed to a decline in government respect for religious freedom."
It cited in particular the restriction of the right to convert to only non-Muslims.
In Saudi Arabia, "there were incremental improvements in specific areas, such as better protection of the right to possess and use personal religious materials," it said.
Myanmar, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Uzbekistan maintained the status quo. Along with China, these countries are on the State Department blacklist, or the Countries of Particular Concern, which incur sanctions.
The blacklist is renewed at the end of the year on the basis of the report.
In presenting the report, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected what she said were attempts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to criminalize "defamation" of religions, such caricatures or other images of the prophet Mohammed, which is forbidden in Islam.
The OIC represents 57 Muslim countries around the world.
"We're concerned by efforts to promote a so-called defamation of religions concept, which has been the focus of numerous resolutions passed at the United Nations," Rice said.
"Instead of protecting religion practice and promoting tolerance, this concept seeks to limit freedom of speech, and that could undermine the standards of international religious freedom," she said.
2008 Executive Summary
International Religious Freedom Report 2008
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
The Annual Report
The purpose of this report is to record the status of respect for religious freedom in every country around the world during the most recent reporting period--July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008. Our primary focus is to document the actions of governments--those that repress religious expression, persecute believers, and tolerate violence against religious minorities, as well as those that protect and promote religious freedom. We also address societal attitudes on religion and religious minorities and record positive and negative actions taken by nongovernmental actors. We strive to report fairly and accurately, with sensitivity to the complexity of religious freedom issues.
Religious Freedom as a Core Objective of U.S. Foreign Policy
The promotion of religious freedom for all is central to American identity and a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. Our advocacy for religious freedom is grounded in our commitment to advance respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms worldwide. The right to believe or not to believe, without fear of government interference or restriction, is essential to human dignity, robust civil society, and sustainable democracy. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights articulate a right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
The Department of State monitors religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, implements policies, develops initiatives, funds programs, and actively works bilaterally and multilaterally to foster greater respect for religious freedom.
State-sponsored Challenges to Religious Freedom
All people are guided by certain core beliefs, and for the vast majority of the world's population those beliefs are drawn from religious convictions. Accordingly, it is fair to say that religious freedom is cherished by most as a foundational human right, and restrictions on faith and practice are an affront to human dignity.
The right to religious freedom can be abused in many ways, both blatant and subtle. It can be helpful to recognize that abuses of, or restrictions on, religious freedom can take various forms, as suggested by the five broad categories discussed below.
First, the most severe abuses take place in certain totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that seek to control religious thought and expression. Such regimes regard some groups as enemies of the state because of the perceived threatening nature of their religious beliefs or their allegiance to a source of authority other than the state. Some governments use security concerns, such as religion-based terrorism, as a pretext to repress peaceful religious practice. This report distinguishes between groups of religious believers who express legitimate political grievances and those who misuse religion to advocate violence against other religious groups or the state.
Second, serious abuses occur in contexts of state hostility toward minority or nonapproved religious groups. While not exerting full control over these groups, some governments intimidate and harass religious minorities and tolerate societal abuses against them. In severe cases, governments may demand that minority adherents renounce their faith or force them to relocate or even flee the country. This report notes the interconnectedness of religious identity and ethnicity, especially in cases where a government dominated by a majority ethno-religious group suppressed the religious expression of minority groups. Also detailed in this report are instances where governments were hostile to a minority religious group because of the group's real or perceived political ideology or affiliation.
A third category of abuse stems from a state's failure to address forces of intolerance against certain religious groups. In these countries, laws may discourage religious discrimination or persecution, but officials fail to prevent attacks, harassment, or other harmful acts against certain individuals or religious groups. Protecting religious freedom requires more than having good laws and policies in place. Governments have the responsibility to work actively at all levels to prevent abuses, bring abusers to justice, provide redress to victims when appropriate, and proactively foster an environment of respect and tolerance for all people.
Fourth, abuses occur when governments have enacted discriminatory legislation or taken concrete action to favor majority religions. These circumstances often result from historical dominance by a majority religious group and can result in institutionalized bias against new or historic minority religious communities. This report notes instances where government endorsement of a particular interpretation of the majority religion resulted in restrictions even on adherents of the majority faith.
A fifth category involves the practice of discriminating against certain religions by identifying them as dangerous "cults" or "sects." This type of restriction sometimes occurs even in countries where religious freedom is otherwise respected.
Multilateral, Regional, and Global Challenges to Religious Freedom
There is a wide spectrum of efforts to undermine the right to religious freedom, including some that extend to multilateral forums. For instance, over the past decade, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an intergovernmental organization comprised of 57 states with majority or significant Muslim populations, has worked through the United Nations system to weaken religious freedom protections. For instance, the OIC, speaking through the Pakistani delegation at the December 2007 U.N. Human Rights Council session, declared that the bloc does not recognize the right of individuals to freely change their religion. Several OIC delegations publicly aligned themselves with this position, and the OIC prevented consensus on an important religious freedom-related resolution.
A problematic long term endeavor of the OIC has been the advancement of the concept of "defamation of religions" into U.N. resolutions and reports. Originally phrased in 1999 as "defamation of Islam," the OIC broadened the title to encompass respect for all religions, but Islam remains the only specifically mentioned faith in the resolutions passed on this topic at the U.N. Human Rights Council and General Assembly. Despite a pretense of protecting religious practice and promoting tolerance, the flawed concept attempts to limit freedom of religion and restrict the rights of all individuals to disagree with or criticize religion, in particular Islam. This concept is also being used by some governments to justify actions that selectively curtail civil dissent, that halt criticism of political structures, and that restrict the religious speech of minority faith communities, dissenting members of the majority faith, and persons of no religious faith. The introduction of the defamation concept in effect seeks to export the blasphemy laws found in many OIC countries to the international level. While the United States discourages actions that are offensive to particular religious traditions, including Islam, the "defamation of religions" concept is inconsistent with the freedoms of religion and expression and the OIC's approach will weaken religious freedom protections, including protections for minority Muslim populations.
The forcible return of individuals from another country to face persecution or abuse in their home country in retribution for their religious activism is also of grave concern to the United States. During the reporting period, the Government of China reportedly sought the forcible return of several Muslims living abroad, including from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, some of whom had reportedly protested restrictions on the Hajj and encouraged other Muslims to pray and fast during Ramadan.
Limits on proselytization and the ability to choose one's faith remained a concern. Governments, often seeking to protect the beliefs, traditions, and ideology of the majority or dominant religion, took steps to restrict the rights of individuals to proselytize and to change their religion. Some countries, such as Malaysia, Greece, and Israel, continued to enforce laws that curb peaceful proselytizing activities. Other countries either passed or introduced anticonversion laws. Six of 28 states in India have passed anticonversion laws; the sixth did so during the reporting period. In Sri Lanka a national level anticonversion bill introduced in 2004 remained under consideration. Although these laws do not explicitly ban conversions, they infringe upon the individual's right to convert and favor the majority religions. Some Muslim majority countries, such as Egypt, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia, continued to accord a right to proselytize only to Muslims and/or to enforce harsh apostasy laws against those who chose to convert to another faith. Actions taken by these governments are inconsistent with the right to freedom of religion, which protects an individual's right to convert, to communicate his or her religious viewpoints, and to receive communication of religious ideas.
In contrast to their traditional respect for religious freedom, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan introduced problematic legislative changes to current religion laws that would place significant limits on this right. In Kazakhstan, the Parliament introduced new draft amendments to the laws governing religion that would, among other things, establish more restrictive registration procedures, prohibit smaller groups from preaching or teaching outside of the group, restrict publication of religious literature, and require local government authorization for the construction of a religious facility. In the Kyrgyz Republic, a draft religion law under active consideration in the Parliament would increase from 10 to 200 the number of members required for official registration of a religious organization, eliminate alternative military service for all but priests and religious laymen, ban proselytizing, and prohibit the conversion of Kyrgyz citizens to a different faith. Lastly, a draft religion law under consideration in Tajikistan would regulate the registration and legal status of religious groups and associations, restrict religious education and literature, and limit other aspects of religious expression.
Some governments increased efforts to promote tolerance, dialogue, and an environment conducive to coexistence between religions during the reporting period. In October 2007 the Jordanian Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought led efforts which resulted in the issuing, on October 13, 2007, of an open letter calling for interfaith dialogue to be based on love of God and neighbor. The document, "A Common Word Between Us and You," was issued by 138 Muslim leaders, clerics, and scholars and addressed to Christians worldwide. The Institute collected signatures for the Common Word document representing all eight schools of Islamic thought. The document was finalized at a conference hosted by the Institute under the patronage of King Abdullah in September 2007. The conference brought together representatives from 40 Islamic and non-Islamic countries. On June 4-6, 2008, the Government of Saudi Arabia, along with the Muslim World League (MWL), organized an intrafaith conference in Mecca. The goal of the conference was to promote unity among various Islamic sects. Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as well as Saudi Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al al-Sheik attended. As a follow up, King Abdullah, along with King Juan Carlos I of Spain, hosted an interfaith conference in Madrid that included prominent religious figures from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
The remainder of this Executive Summary consists of two parts. Part I summarizes, on a country-by-country basis, actions the U.S. Government has taken to advance international religious freedom in the nations designated "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPCs) for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Part II provides a summary of conditions in a number of countries where religious freedom is of significant interest, including in Countries of Particular Concern. For each country, this section notes the legal situation and relevant policies and gives examples of particular government abuses or positive steps governments have taken to promote or protect religious freedom. In most cases, these countries exhibit one or more of the forms of abuse outlined above.
PART I: U.S. ACTIONS IN COUNTRIES OF PARTICULAR CONCERN
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRF Act) requires an annual review of the status of religious freedom worldwide and the designation of countries that have "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom" during the reporting period as "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPCs). Following the designation, a period of negotiation may ensue, in which the United States seeks to work with a designated country to bring about change. Subsequently, depending upon the results of these discussions, one or more actions are chosen by the Secretary of State, pursuant to the IRF Act. Options for CPC actions include application of sanctions or negotiation of a bilateral agreement. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and his office take actions to promote religious freedom in each CPC throughout the year. This section highlights actions by other U.S. Government officials to promote religious freedom and to encourage the governments to take positive steps to improve conditions for religious believers. Currently, the countries that have been designated as CPCs are: Burma, China, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan. Further details on U.S. actions in nations designated as CPCs and in other countries may be found in each individual country report.
Every year since 1999, the Secretary of State has designated Burma as a CPC. During the reporting period, the Secretary continued the designation of a sanction, consisting of a prohibition on exports or other transfers of defense articles and defense services pursuant to the Arms Export Control Act, as the action under the IRF Act. The U.S. Government has a wide array of financial and trade sanctions in place against Burma for its violations of human rights.The U.S. Government advocated religious freedom with all strata of society, including government officials, religious leaders, private citizens, scholars, foreign diplomats, and international business and media representatives. Through outreach and travel, when not blocked by regime officials, embassy representatives offered support to and exchanged information with many, otherwise isolated, local nongovernmental organizations and religious leaders. The U.S. funded a UNHCR program to issue identification cards to undocumented Rohingya Muslims in an effort to facilitate their registration of births and marriages, and access to basic education and health care.
The Secretary of State has designated the People's Republic of China a CPC every year since 1999. During the reporting period, the Secretary continued the designation of a sanction, consisting of the restriction of exports of crime control and detection instruments and equipment pursuant to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, as the action under the IRF Act. The U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and the consulates general in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenyang made a concerted effort to encourage greater religious freedom in China, condemning abuses while supporting positive trends. In public and in private, U.S. officials repeatedly urged the Chinese Government to respect citizens' constitutional and internationally recognized rights to exercise religious freedom and to release all those serving prison sentences for religious activities. President Bush raised religious freedom issues during meetings with President Hu Jintao, including at the September 2007 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Sydney, Australia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised concerns about religious freedom during multiple meetings with senior Chinese officials and issued a statement after the March 2008 protests in Tibet calling upon the Government of China to address restrictions on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism that contributed to tensions in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor raised religious freedom concerns in the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue in May and in separate meetings with the Chinese Government in Beijing and in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Ambassador to China and other senior officials highlighted problems of religious freedom and cases of individual religious prisoners of conscience in public speeches and in private diplomacy with Chinese officials.
The Secretary of State first designated Eritrea as a CPC in 2004. As the action under the IRF Act, the Secretary ordered the denial of commercial export to Eritrea of any defense articles and services controlled under the Arms Export Control Act, excluding certain items such as those used for peacekeeping and antiterrorism efforts. The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers have raised the cases of detention and restrictions on unregistered religious groups with officials in the President's Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Justice, as well as with the leaders of the sole legal political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice. Despite repeated attempts, U.S. embassy officials were not permitted by the Government to meet with government authorities responsible for religious affairs.
Every year since 1999, the U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and thus cannot raise directly the restrictions that the Iranian Government places on religious freedom. The U.S. Government has expressed strongly its objections to the Government's harsh and oppressive treatment of religious minorities through public statements and reports, support for relevant U.N. and NGO efforts, and cooperative diplomatic initiatives involving other states concerned about religious freedom in Iran. The United States calls on other countries with bilateral relations with Iran to use those ties to press Iran on religious freedom and human rights. On numerous occasions, the U.S. Department of State has addressed publicly the situation faced by the Iranian Jewish community (guaranteed freedom of worship in Iran's constitution) and the Baha'is (viewed as apostates by the regime), and the U.S. Government has encouraged other governments to make similar statements. The U.S. Government has publicly condemned Iran in U.N. resolutions for its abuses of human rights, basic freedoms, and treatment of religious minorities. In 2005 and 2006, the U.N. General Assembly successfully approved resolutions, both cosponsored by the United States, specifically addressing religious freedom issues among other violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. In 2007 the U.N. General Assembly passed another resolution against Iran, condemning inter alia its treatment of minority religious groups, including Baha'is.
The Secretary of State has designated the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a CPC every year since 2001. During the reporting period, the Secretary continued the designation of a sanction, consisting of restrictions on normal trade relations and other trade benefits pursuant to the Trade Act of 1974 and the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, as the action under the IRF Act. The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea but raises religious freedom concerns about the country in multilateral forums and bilaterally with other governments, particularly those that have diplomatic relations with the regime. The United States has made clear that dialogue on the country's human rights record would be necessary for the country to normalize relations with the United States. U.S. Department of State officials meet regularly with North Korean defectors and with NGOs focused on the country. In December 2007 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution, which the United States had cosponsored, that condemned the country's poor human rights record, expressing special concern at "continuing reports of systemic, widespread and grave violations" of human rights. The resolution called on the country to fulfill its obligations under human rights instruments to which it is a party and further urged the Government to permit U.N. special representatives to visit and to ensure that humanitarian organizations have free access to the country. In addition, the U.S Department of State continued to provide funding to the National Endowment for Democracy to support Republic of Korea-based NGOs in their efforts to improve and expand monitoring and reporting of the human rights situation in the country. Radio Free Asia and Voice of America also provide regular Korean-language broadcasting. Since his appointment in 2005, the U.S. Special Envoy on Human Rights in North Korea has urged other countries to join the growing international campaign urging the DPRK to address its human rights conditions and abuses of religious freedom.
The Secretary of State first designated Saudi Arabia as a CPC in 2004. In 2006, because of new policies confirmed by the Saudi Arabian Government, the Secretary renewed a waiver of sanctions "to further the purposes of the Act." During the period covered by this report, senior U.S. officials and embassy officers met numerous times with senior Saudi government and religious leaders regarding religious freedom issues. Despite the fact that religious freedom remains severely restricted in Saudi Arabia, during this reporting period there were incremental improvements in specific areas, such as better protection of the right to possess and use personal religious materials; greater restrictions on, and scrutiny of, the religious police; and greater allowance for public and private celebrations of Shi'a holidays in the Qatif oasis of the Eastern Province. There were also some positive developments that could lead to important additional improvements in the future. For example, the Government reiterated its policy to halt the dissemination of intolerance and combat extremism, both within Islam and toward non-Muslim religious groups, in the country and abroad. As part of this effort, the Government reconfirmed its policies to reform its educational system, including teacher training, curriculum reform, and revising textbooks to remove intolerant references to other religions. The Government continued to state its goal of "balanced development," by promising greater infrastructure development in predominantly Shi'a and Isma'ili areas of the Eastern and Najran Provinces. A significant development this year was the beginning of an interfaith dialogue process, led by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
Every year since 1999, the Secretary of State has designated Sudan a CPC. During the reporting period, among the numerous U.S. sanctions against Sudan, the Secretary continued the designation of one sanction consisting of the use of the voice and vote of the United States to abstain or oppose loans or other uses of the funds of the international financial institutions to or for Sudan, pursuant to the International Financial Institutions Act, as the action under the IRF Act. The U.S. Government encouraged the Government of National Unity to fulfill the promises of religious freedom made in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Interim National Constitution and made clear that restrictions on religious freedom impede improved relations between the United States and Sudan. The U.S. Embassy has developed working relationships with a number of Muslim and Christian leaders, and U.S. officials met on a regular basis with such leaders in Khartoum, Juba, and other locales.
In November 2006 the Secretary of State designated Uzbekistan as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act. Uzbekistan's restrictive religion law, which makes it difficult or impossible for many religious groups to obtain legal status, resulted in raids and arrests and imprisonment of religious leaders. There were continuing credible allegations that devout Muslims were arrested on suspicion of membership in extremist groups. Some of those detained were simply conservative Muslims whose beliefs or teachings differed from those of state-sanctioned clerics. Following the CPC designation, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom has held a series of meetings with officials of the Government of Uzbekistan, both in Uzbekistan and in Washington, aimed at forging improvements in religious freedom. The U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan and other U.S. officials have also actively participated in this process to seek important improvements.
PART II: COUNTRY-SPECIFIC CONDITIONS OF INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
This section provides a summary of conditions in a number of countries where religious freedom is of significant interest. For each country, this section notes the legal situation and relevant policies and gives examples of particular government abuses or positive steps governments have taken in the reporting period to promote or protect religious freedom.
The Constitution states that "followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law." It also states that Islam is the "religion of the state" and that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." While the Government and political leaders aspire to a national environment that respects the right to religious freedom, the residual effects of years of Taliban rule, popular suspicion regarding outside influence of foreigners, and weak democratic institutions hinder the respect for religious freedom. Intolerance was manifested in harassment and occasional violence against religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Shi'as, and Muslims who were perceived as not respecting conservative Islamic strictures. During the reporting period, authorities arrested and jailed three individuals for publishing or circulating materials deemed to be offensive to Islam. The reprinting of one of the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad and the airing of a film produced by a Dutch opposition parliamentarian critical of the Qur'an were interpreted as deliberate insults to Muslims, sparking protests, sometimes violent, in some cities during the reporting period. Conversion is understood by many citizens to contravene the tenets of Islam and Shari'a. Due to societal pressure, most local converts hid their religion from their neighbors and others. Within the Muslim population, relations among the different sects continued to be difficult.
The Algerian Constitution provides for freedom of belief and opinion and permits the people to set up institutions that protect fundamental liberties. The Constitution also declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic morality. The Government’s de facto and de jure policies have precipitated a decline in the status of religious freedom during this reporting period. In February 2008 the Government began enforcing Ordinance 06-03, which makes proselytizing a criminal offense. Additionally, the ordinance mandates that anyone who makes, stores, or distributes printed documents, or audiovisual materials with the intent of "shaking the faith" of a Muslim may also face a maximum of 5 years' imprisonment and a $7,100 (500,000 dinars) fine. The enforcement of Ordinance 06-03 resulted in increased restrictions on non-Muslim religious practice. There were many reports of Government restrictions on worship, including the arrest and sentencing of converts to Christianity, the ordered closure of churches, the dismissal of a Christian school director for allegedly using a school for evangelizing, and the confiscation of Bibles.
The Burmese Government's repressive, authoritarian military regime imposed restrictions on certain religious activities and frequently committed abuses of the right to freedom of religion. Most adherents of registered religions were permitted to worship as they chose, but the Government continued to infiltrate and monitor activities of virtually all organizations, including religious ones. It also systematically restricted efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom. In September 2007 the regime violently suppressed peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks. Security forces raided monasteries and arrested monks in response to these demonstrations. In some cases, government officials destroyed existing places of worship, including monasteries believed to be involved in the September demonstrations, and discouraged and prohibited minority religious groups from constructing new places of worship. The Government actively promoted Theravada Buddhism, particularly among minority ethnic groups. Although there were no new reports of forced conversions of non-Buddhists, the Government applied pressure on students and poor youth to convert to Buddhism. Adherence to Buddhism remains generally a prerequisite for promotion to senior government and military ranks. Anti-Muslim violence continued, as did the close monitoring of Muslims' activities. Restrictions on Christians and other non-Buddhist minority groups also continued throughout the country.
During the period covered by this report, the Government's repression of religious freedom intensified in some areas, including in Tibetan areas and in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Some unregistered Protestant religious groups in Beijing also reported intensified harassment from government authorities in the lead up to the 2008 Olympic Games. Media and China-based sources reported that municipal authorities in Beijing closed some house churches or asked them to stop meeting during the 2008 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. During the reporting period, officials detained and interrogated several foreigners about their religious activities and alleged that the foreigners had engaged in "illegal religious activities" and cancelled their visas. Media reported that the total number of expatriates expelled by the Government due to concerns about their religious activities exceeded 100. The Government reportedly arrested two Uighur Christians who were employed by foreign-owned companies whose expatriate manager was expelled from the XUAR on charges of "illegal religious activities." Patriotic education campaigns, which required monks and nuns to sign statements personally denouncing the Dalai Lama, and other new restrictions on religious freedom were major factors that led monks and nuns to mount peaceful protests at a number of monasteries on March 10, 2008. The protests and subsequent security response gave way to violence in Lhasa by March 14 and 15. Following the outbreak of unrest, authorities locked down monasteries, intensified "patriotic education" campaigns, and detained an unknown number of monks and nuns or expelled them from monasteries. Government officials increased public criticism of the Dalai Lama after the March protests.
There was little evidence that regulations introduced in 2005 on religious affairs improved the situation of religious freedom; they defined only government-approved practices and faiths as normal or legitimate. Unregistered Protestant churches continued to report that their applications for registration were rejected without cause. "Underground" Catholic bishops also faced repression, in large part due to their loyalty to the Vatican, which the government accused of interfering in China's internal affairs. The Government of the XUAR continued to strictly control religious activity, limiting participation on the Hajj to tours sponsored by the Islamic Association of China. Foreign media reported that XUAR officials confiscated the passports of more than 2,000 Uighur Muslims to prevent unauthorized Hajj pilgrimages. The Government continued its repression of groups that it categorized as "cults" in general, particularly small Christian-based groups and the Falun Gong. Falun Gong practitioners continued to face arrest, detention, and imprisonment, and there were reports of deaths due to torture and abuse. However, the Government continued to emphasize the role of religion in promoting a "harmonious society," allowed the Patriotic Religious Associations to expand their cooperation with religious groups in other countries, and funded the building of some new places for worship by registered religious groups. The Government also allowed foreign and domestic religious groups to increase cooperation on religious education and charitable work. The Government has granted approval for an increasing number of religious books to be published by officially approved publishers.
The Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law. However, the Government continued to place restrictions on freedom of religion. While the Government permitted apolitical religious activity in government-approved sites, state security officials subjected officially recognized religious groups as well as unregistered house churches to surveillance and infiltration. Many religious organizations noted a slight improvement in religious freedom, reporting fewer restrictions on politically-sensitive expression, fewer importation and travel restrictions, permission to repair buildings, and significant increases in membership. The law allows for the construction of new houses of worship once the required permits are obtained. However, the Government rarely issued the permits. The Government does not permit private schools, including religious schools. Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists reported discrimination in schools. Prisoners reported that prison officials ignored repeated written requests for religious visits. The police beat and detained 18 persons at a Catholic church who earlier had participated in a political protest. The Government signed the two international human rights covenants but has yet to ratify them. U.S. government policy is to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy and respect for human rights, including religious freedom.
The Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites, although the Government places restrictions on these rights in practice. Islam is the official state religion, and Shari'a (Islamic law) is the primary source of legislation. Several government measures and practices undertaken during the reporting period contributed to a decline in government respect for religious freedom. Most significantly, a ruling by a lower court restricted the freedom to convert to non-Muslims only. This ruling, which is under appeal, codified previously de facto restrictions on conversion from Islam to any other religion. Another ruling held that the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion does not apply to Baha'is. Additionally, governmental authorities detained some religious freedom advocates, some converts from Islam to Christianity, and some Christian children of parents who converted to Islam. The Government also failed to redress laws and practices that reinforce societal discrimination against non-Muslim religious groups. Members of religious groups that are not recognized by the Government continued to experience personal and collective hardship. There were some positive steps in support of religious freedom, including a court ruling on behalf of Baha'is that has allowed some to obtain civil documents, and a court ruling allowing 13 Christian-born converts to Islam to obtain identity documents indicating their conversion to Christianity. Members of non-Muslim religious minorities officially recognized by the Government generally continued to worship without harassment and maintained links with co-religionists in other countries. Societal abuses and discrimination continued during the reporting period and were manifest in attacks on Christian minorities, including the kidnapping and torture of monks, death threats to a convert from Islam to Christianity, and harassment of religious leaders, as well as in the destruction of Christian symbols and property, and the burning and looting of a chapel.
The Government's record on religious freedom remained extremely poor during the reporting period. The Eritrean Government severely restricted the freedom of religion for groups that it had not registered and infringed upon the independence of some registered groups. Following a 2002 decree that religious groups must register, the Government closed all religious facilities not belonging to the country's four principal religious communities: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church of Eritrea, and Islam. The Government continued to harass, arrest, detain, torture, and kill members of independent evangelical groups (including Pentecostals), Jehovah's Witnesses, and a reform movement within the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and it sought greater control over the four approved religious groups. The Government also intervened in procedural and administrative decisions of the Eritrean Orthodox Church by supplanting the patriarch in favor of its own candidate. The Government failed to register any of the religious groups that applied in 2002 for registration, and it restricted religious meetings and arrested individuals during religious ceremonies, gatherings, and prayer meetings in private homes. There were also reports of forced recantations in detention. During the reporting period, authorities arrested numerous religious believers not affiliated with the four approved churches. According to some reports, over 3,000 religious detainees continue to be held without due process in harsh conditions that include extreme temperature fluctuations with limited or no access to family.
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the National Government generally respected this right in practice. However, some state and local governments, including those of Gujarat and Rajasthan, enacted or amended "anticonversion" laws during the reporting period. The vast majority of citizens of every religious group lived in peaceful coexistence. However, there were reports of organized societal attacks against minority religious groups. State police and enforcement agencies often did not act swiftly enough to effectively counter societal attacks. In Orissa, which is governed by a coalition government that includes the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Hindu extremists attacked Christian villagers and churches in the Kandhamal district over the Christmas holidays. Extremists damaged approximately 100 churches and Christian institutions and destroyed 700 Christian homes which led villagers to flee to nearby forests. The violence affected 22 Christian-owned businesses. Numerous cases were in the courts at the end of the reporting period, including cases in connection with the 2002 Gujarat violence, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, and attacks against Christians. Some extremists continued to view ineffective investigation and prosecution of attacks as a signal that they could commit such violence with impunity. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that communal violence against religious minorities was part of a larger Hindu nationalist agenda and corresponded with ongoing state electoral politics. There were terrorist attacks at or near places of worship during the reporting period, including a coordinated series of bombings in market and temple areas in Jaipur, Rajasthan in May 2008 and an explosion at the main mosque in Hyderabad in May 2007. These attacks reflect a soft target focus and appear designed to foment communal violence.
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion. However, the Government officially recognized only six religions, and legal restrictions continued on certain types of religious activity, particularly among unrecognized religions and sects of recognized religions considered "deviant." The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. However, recommendations by government-appointed bodies and a subsequent government decree restricting the ability of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to practice freely were significant exceptions. In some cases, the Government tolerated discrimination against and the abuse of religious groups by private actors and often failed to punish perpetrators, although the Government prevented several vigilante actions during Ramadan. Aceh remained the only province authorized to implement Islamic law (Shari'a). Many local governments outside of Aceh maintained laws with elements of Shari'a that abrogated the rights of women and religious minorities. However, no new Shari'a-inspired laws were known to have passed during the reporting period. Even though the central government holds authority over religious matters, it failed to overturn any local laws that restricted rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Persons of minority religious groups continued to experience some official discrimination in the form of administrative difficulties, often in the context of civil registration of marriages and births or the issuance of identity cards. There were a number of reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Extremist groups used violence and intimidation to force at least 12 churches and 21 Ahmadiyya mosques to close. Several churches and Ahmadiyya places of worship remained closed after mobs forcibly shut them down in previous years. Some Muslim organizations and government officials called for the dissolution of Ahmadiyya religious expression, resulting in some violence and discrimination against its followers. Some perpetrators of violence were undergoing trials during the reporting period. However, many perpetrators of past abuse against religious minorities were not brought to justice.
The Constitution provides that "other Islamic denominations are to be accorded full respect," while the country's pre-Islamic religious groups--Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews--are recognized as "protected" religious minorities. Article 4 of the Constitution states that all laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. Despite Constitutional guarantees, in practice those who are not Shi'a Muslims face substantial discrimination, and government actions continued to support elements of society that create a threatening atmosphere for some religious minorities. There was continued deterioration of the poor status of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period. Government actions and rhetoric created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shi'a religious groups, most notably for Baha'is, as well as Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, and members of the Jewish community. Government-controlled media intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities, particularly the Baha'is. Reports of imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs continued during the reporting period. Baha'i groups often reported arbitrary arrests, expulsions from universities, and confiscation of property. The Iranian Government regards the Baha'i faith as a heretical Islamic group with a political orientation that is antagonistic to the country's Islamic revolution and continued to prohibit Baha'is from teaching and practicing their faith. (Baha'is view themselves not as Muslims, but as an independent religion with origins in the Shi'a Islamic tradition.) Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians legally recognized religious minorities, have reported imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on their religious beliefs.
During the reporting period there was a rise in officially sanctioned anti-Semitic propaganda involving official statements, media outlets, publications, and books, creating a threatening atmosphere for the Jewish community. The Government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by some Christian groups by closely monitoring their activities, closing some churches, and arresting Christian converts. Members of evangelical congregations are required to carry membership cards, photocopies of which must be provided to the authorities. Government restrictions on Sufi Muslim groups and houses of worship also became more pronounced in recent years, and Sufis reported the constant harassment and intimidation of prominent Sufi leaders by the intelligence and security services. There were reports that the Government called for a full ban on the practice of Sufism and required some adherents to sign documents renouncing Sufism. Reportedly, the President called for an end to the development of Christianity in the country as well.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While the Government generally endorsed these rights, violence conducted by terrorists, extremists, and criminal gangs restricted the free exercise of religion and posed a significant threat to the country's vulnerable religious minorities throughout the reporting period: radical Islamic elements from outside the Government exerted pressure on individuals and groups to conform to extremist interpretations of Islam's precepts; and sectarian violence, including attacks on clergy and places of worship, hampered the ability to practice religion freely. As the Government began to exhibit the will and capacity to challenge its militant opponents, the violence began to abate and the Government became increasingly successful in restoring security, in a generally nonsectarian manner, throughout the country. Overall, there was some progress in government commitment and action in support of religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Moreover, since 2003 the Government has generally not engaged in the persecution of any religious group, calling instead for tolerance and acceptance of all religious minorities. This commitment was publicly reinforced by comments from the Prime Minister following security operations against violent groups in Basrah, Baghdad, and Ninewa Provinces, the latter of which is the province with the largest concentration of non-Muslim minorities.
Israel and Occupied Territories
The Israeli Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty provides for freedom of worship and the Government generally respected this right in practice. While there is no constitution, government policy continued to support the generally free practice of religion. Nevertheless, some increases in societal abuses and discrimination contributed to a slight decline in respect for religious freedom during the reporting period. Specifically, societal abuses and discrimination increased against some evangelical Christian groups as well as Messianic Jews (persons who identify as Jews but who believe Jesus was the Messiah). Relations among religious and ethnic groups--between Jews and non-Jews, Muslims and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs, secular and religious Jews, and among the different streams of Judaism--often were strained during the reporting period. This was due primarily to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Government's unequal treatment of non-Orthodox Jews, including the Government's recognition of only Orthodox Jewish religious authorities in personal and some civil status matters concerning Jews. For example, Government allocations of state resources favor Orthodox (including Modern and National Religious streams of Orthodoxy) and Haredi (sometimes called "ultra-Orthodox") Jewish religious groups and institutions. The "status quo" agreement reached at the founding of the state provides that the Government will implement certain policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Jewish marriages performed in the country are not recognized by the Government unless they are performed by the Orthodox Jewish establishment. The Orthodox Jewish establishment also determines other state practices such as who is buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered "Jewish" by Orthodox standards. The construction of a separation barrier by the Government of Israel due to security concerns, particularly in and around East Jerusalem, severely limited access to holy sites and seriously impeded the work of religious organizations that provide education, healthcare, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians. Such impediments were not exclusive to religious believers or to religious organizations, and at times the Israeli Government made efforts to lessen the impact on religious communities.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) does not have a constitution. However, the Palestinian Basic Law provides for freedom of religion, and the PA generally respected this right in practice. The Basic Law states that Islam is the official religion and the principles of Shari'a shall be the main source of legislation, but it also calls for respect and sanctity for other "heavenly" religions. Personal status law for Palestinians is based on religious law. For Muslim Palestinians, personal status law is derived from Shari'a, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status issues for Christians. President Abbas took steps to eliminate religious incitement, although some incidents still occurred, and the PA sought to protect religious freedom. There were unconfirmed reports of Christians being targeted for extortion or abuse during the reporting period, and the PA did not take action to investigate these injustices allegedly perpetrated by PA officials. The Gaza Strip was under the control of the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS) during the reporting period, limiting the ability of the PA to enforce respect for religious freedom or address reports of harassment of Christians in the Gaza Strip.
During the period covered by this report, the overall status of respect for religious freedom did not significantly change. Throughout the country, religious practice was restrained by official rules and policies that allowed religious groups to practice their faith only under circumscribed conditions; however, the degree to which local authorities imposed restrictions and carried out abuses varied by region and by religion. Authorities in some areas continued to display intolerance for minority religious practices, especially by Protestant Christians. Some local officials pressured minority Protestants to renounce their faith on threat of arrest or forceful eviction from their villages in Bolikhamsai, Houaphan, and Luang Namtha provinces. Arrests and detention of Protestants occurred in Luang Namtha, Oudomsai, Bokeo, and Vientiane provinces, although this occurred less frequently than in previous reporting periods. In some areas, minority Protestants were forbidden from gathering to worship. In areas where Protestants have actively proselytized, local officials have sometimes subjected them to "reeducation." Conflicts between ethnic groups sometimes exacerbated religious tensions.
The Constitution of Malaysia provides for religious freedom. However, other constitutional provisions designate Islam as "the religion of the Federation," define all ethnic Malays as Muslim, give the Government authority to regulate Islam, and prohibit the propagation of other faiths among Muslims. Malaysia maintains a dual legal system with both secular and Shari'a courts, the latter of which have jurisdiction over the Muslim population in certain civil matters. Shari'a courts generally prohibited those officially registered as Muslims from legally converting to another faith. Those who attempted conversion were deemed "apostates" and sometimes sent to religious "rehabilitation" centers, where they received coerced religious instruction. The Government maintained a list of 56 "deviant" Islamic sects, and members of these and other banned groups may also be subject to "rehabilitation." Officials at the state level sometimes interfered with mosque activity by using mosques to convey political messages, preventing certain imams from speaking, and overseeing the content of sermons. Religious minorities remained generally free to practice their beliefs. Nevertheless, over the past several years, many have expressed concern that the civil court system has gradually ceded jurisdiction to Shari'a courts, particularly in areas of family law involving disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims. Religious minorities continued to face alleged violations of property rights and limitations on religious expression. The Hindu community continued to express concern about the demolition of Hindu temples. The Government restricts the distribution of Malay-language Christian materials in peninsular Malaysia and maintains bans on a number of other materials that deal with sensitive religious issues.
Although the Constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief," genuine religious freedom does not exist, and there was no change in the extremely poor level of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period. The cult of personality of Kim Jong-il and his father remained important ideological underpinnings of the regime, at times resembling tenets of a state religion. The Government severely restricts religious freedom, including organized religious activity, except that which is supervised tightly by officially recognized groups linked to the Government. Some foreigners who have visited the country stated that services at state-authorized churches appeared staged and contained political content supportive of the regime. Defectors reported that they had witnessed the arrests and execution of members of underground Christian churches by the regime in prior years. According to an unconfirmed claim from one foreign Christian NGO, nine North Korean nationals in its network disappeared during the year. The reason for their reported disappearance was not known. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 persons were believed to be held in political prison camps in remote areas, some for religious reasons. Prison conditions are harsh; torture and starvation are common. Refugees and defectors who had been in prison stated that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs generally were treated worse than other inmates.
The country is an Islamic republic. Islam is the state religion, and the Constitution requires that laws be consistent with Islamic principles. The Government took some steps to improve the treatment of religious minorities during the period covered by this report, but serious problems remained. Law enforcement personnel abused religious minorities in custody. Security forces and other government agencies did not adequately prevent or address societal abuse against minorities. Discriminatory legislation and the Government's failure to take action against societal forces hostile to those who practice a different religious belief fostered religious intolerance, acts of violence, and intimidation against religious minorities. Specific laws that discriminate against religious minorities include anti-Ahmadi and blasphemy laws that provide the death penalty for defiling Islam or its prophets. The Ahmadiyya community continued to face governmental and societal discrimination and legal bars to the practice of its religious beliefs. Members of other Islamic sects also claimed governmental discrimination. Freedom of speech is constitutionally "subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam." Relations between religious communities were tense. Societal discrimination against religious minorities was widespread, and societal violence against such groups occurred. Societal actors, including terrorist and extremist groups and individuals, targeted religious congregations.
While the Government generally respected freedom of religion for most of the population, in some cases authorities imposed restrictions on certain groups and did not always respect separation of church and state and the equality of all religions before the law. Some federal agencies and many local authorities continued to restrict the rights of some religious minorities. Over the past year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Russian Government violated its international religious freedom obligations in cases involving the Moscow Church of Scientology and the Christ’s Grace Church of Evangelical Christians. Some earlier ECHR decisions have still not been fully implemented. Vague legislation countering "extremism" has had a detrimental effect on religious freedom. There were indications that the security services, including the Federal Security Service, treated the leadership and literature of some minority religious groups as security threats. Popular attitudes toward traditionally Muslim ethnic groups are negative in many regions, and there are manifestations of anti-Semitism as well as hostility toward Roman Catholics and other non Orthodox Christian denominations. Some observant Muslims claimed harassment because of their faith. Instances of religiously motivated violence continued, although it often was difficult to determine whether xenophobic, religious, or ethnic prejudices were the primary motivation behind violent attacks. Some Russian Orthodox Church clergy have stated publicly their opposition to any expansion of the presence of Roman Catholics, Protestants, and other non-Orthodox denominations. Instances of problems in securing entry visas for clergy increased.
While overall Government policies continue to place severe restrictions on religious freedom, there were incremental improvements in specific areas during the period covered by this report. In addition, there were some positive developments in Government policy that, if fully implemented, could lead to other important improvements in the future. Nevertheless, non-Muslims and Muslims who do not adhere to the Government's interpretation of Islam continued to face significant political, economic, legal, social, and religious discrimination. Charges of harassment, abuse, and alleged killings at the hands of the religious police continued to surface. Saudi textbooks continued to contain statements of intolerance towards Shi'a, Ismailis, Jews, Christians, and other religious groups, and such statements were also made by public officials, teachers, and government-paid imams. Some foreign workers were arrested for practicing their faith. These kinds of incidents caused many non-Muslims to worship in fear of discovery by the police and religious police. At the same time, the Government reiterated its policy to halt the dissemination of intolerant literature, combat extremism, and improve the climate of tolerance, both within Islam and toward non-Muslim religious groups. To that end, the Government confirmed that it was reviewing educational materials to remove or revise disparaging references to minority religious traditions; that it was undertaking to screen out prospective teachers who hold extremist religious views and would dismiss teachers who espouse such views; and that it was monitoring sermons at government-supported mosques and would dismiss or retrain imams whose preaching promotes religious extremism.
The Constitution accords Buddhism the "foremost place," and commits the government to protecting it, but does not recognize it as the state religion. The Constitution also provides for the right of members of other religious groups to freely practice their religious beliefs. While the Government publicly endorses this right, in practice there were problems in some areas. Anticonversion legislation, first introduced in 2004, remained under consideration. There were sporadic attacks on Christian churches by Buddhist extremists and and some societal tension due to ongoing allegations of forced conversions. There were also attacks on Muslims in the Eastern province by progovernment Tamil militias; these appeared to be due to ethnic and political tensions rather than the Muslim community's religious beliefs.
Although the 2005 Interim National Constitution (INC) provided for freedom of religion throughout the entire country, the INC enshrined Shari'a as a source of legislation in the north, and the official laws and policies of the Government favored Islam in the north. The Constitution of Southern Sudan provided for freedom of religion in the south, and other laws and policies of the Government of South Sudan contributed to the generally free practice of religion in that region. Some restrictions on Christians in the north were relaxed, continuing gains realized with the creation of the Government of National Unity (GNU) in 2005.
However, the GNU continued to place restrictions on Christians in the North, such as the requirement that all students in the North study Islam in school, regardless of whether they were Muslim, and even if enrolled in private Christian schools. The Commission for the Rights of Non-Muslims in the National Capital, a government mechanism designed to protect religious freedom, obtained the release or leniency for some non-Muslims arrested for violating Shari'a and provided a forum for dialogue on religious issues.
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion. However, in practice the Government continued to restrict the free practice of religion. There were small improvements in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report, but troubling developments in the treatment of some registered and unregistered groups continued. All groups must register in order to gain legal status; unregistered religious activity is illegal and may be punished by administrative fines. Government promotion of the Ruhnama decreased, two religious groups were registered, and the former mufti of the country was pardoned and given an official government position. However, the Government threatened members of minority religious groups with fines, loss of employment and housing, and imprisonment because of their beliefs. There were also reports of raids. The Government also continued arresting and charging Jehovah's Witnesses who conscientiously objected to military service.
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and for the principle of separation of church and state. However, the 1998 Religion Law restricts many rights only to registered religious groups and limits which groups may register. Respect for religious freedom remained restricted during the reporting period. However, religious freedom conditions improved for the Muslim majority. The Government generally did not interfere with worshippers attending sanctioned mosques and granted approvals for new Islamic print, audio, and video materials. Violators of the law's prohibitions on activities such as proselytizing, importing and disseminating religious literature, and offering private religious instruction are subject to criminal penalties. The Government permitted the operation of religious groups it considered mainstream. However, a number of religious groups remained unregistered because they were unable to satisfy the strict registration requirements set out by the law. Some unregistered Christian groups, particularly those with ethnic Uzbek members, experienced raids, harassment and the detention of their leaders and members; some faced criminal charges. The Government's campaign against unauthorized Islamic groups suspected of extremist sentiments or activities appeared to have slowed but did not cease. Alleged members of extremist groups continued to be arrested and sentenced to lengthy jail terms. Religious groups enjoyed generally tolerant relations, although neighbors, family, and employers sometimes continued to pressure ethnic Uzbek Christians, especially recent converts and residents of smaller communities. Some minority religious groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, and evangelical Christians, continued to face negative coverage from the state-dominated media.
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, on the condition that its practice does not violate public morality, decency, or the public order, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. Religious groups are required to register to obtain legal status as religious organizations. Registration requirements are largely administrative but stipulate that groups serve the community's social interests. There were some efforts by the Government, motivated by political reasons, to limit the influence of religious groups in certain geographic, social, and political areas. Foreign missionaries require special visas to enter the country, and they noted increased difficulties, especially for access to indigenous areas. Power was increasingly concentrated in the executive branch and limits placed on free expression. Outspoken religious leaders who criticized this trend were subjected to President Chavez's virulent rhetoric. He specifically warned Roman Catholic bishops to refrain from criticizing the Government's proposal to reform the 1999 Constitution, which failed in a December 2, 2007, public referendum. The Catholic Church denounced the Reform Catholic Venezuelan Church for usurping its rites. One Catholic archbishop alleged that the Government funded the new church in order to create a schism. Members of a small progovernment party forcibly occupied the Catholic archbishop's residence for a short time. The President, other government officials, and government-affiliated media outlets made numerous anti-Semitic comments that created a spillover effect into mainstream society. Anti-Semitic vandalism, caricatures, intimidation, and physical attacks against Jewish institutions continued. On the day of the public referendum to reform the 1999 Constitution, members of the police intelligence unit came to a Jewish community center in Caracas with a search warrant to look for weapons. They found none.
The status for the respect of religious freedom continued to experience important improvements. Vietnam deepened implementation of its legal framework on religion, introduced in 2004 and 2005. During the reporting period, the Government granted national recognition--the highest legal status--to the United World Mission Church, the Grace Baptist Church, and the Pure Land Buddhist Home Practice. The Government also granted national registration certificates to four additional Protestant denominations, including the Vietnam Mennonite Church, the Baptist Convention Church in Vietnam, the Vietnam Presbyterian Church, and the Vietnam Christian Inter-Fellowship Church, as well as to two additional religious groups--the Threefold Enlightened Truth Path and the Threefold Southern Tradition. The national Committee on Religious Affairs organized a number of programs to offer training to religious denominations on registration procedures and to local authorities on how to implement the national legal framework on religion. Many new churches were registered throughout the country. Despite progress, however, serious problems remain. These include slowness or inaction in the registration of Protestant congregations, bureaucratic delays and impediments, ongoing restrictions on proselytism, incidents of harassment and abuse of religious believers, difficulties in the establishment of Protestant pastor training courses, and unresolved land expropriation claims involving a number of religious denominations. Stringent restrictions remain on the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Khmer Krom Buddhists, as well as on unregistered Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Protestant groups. While most provincial authorities have been active in implementing the legal framework on religion, a few have been much less so. Nevertheless, most religious groups reported improved conditions.
Released on September 19, 2008
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