ROME, NOV. 8, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Almost completely ignored by the media, the U.S. Department of State released its latest annual report on religious freedom on Oct. 26. The 2009 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom deals with the year ending June 30, 2009, and surveys 198 countries and territories.
Before going into the details on each country, the report's introduction explains why the United States' government considers it important to defend religious freedom.
"Religious freedom is the birthright of all people, regardless of their faith or lack thereof," it asserts.
The introduction also brings into play the concept of the common good. "On balance, freedom tends to channel the convictions and passions of faith into acts of service and positive engagement in the public square," the text affirms.
From a more political perspective the State Department argues that when religious groups and ideas are suppressed then this tends to lead to their radicalization, which in turn can foment separatism or insurgency.
On the international level the report argues that if governments manipulate religion or marginalize groups, then this only helps radical groups that will in turn be a threat to global security.
"Environments of robust religious freedom, on the other hand, foster communal harmony and embolden voices of moderation to openly refute extremists on religious grounds," the introduction concludes.
A section of the report deals with those countries where violations of religious freedom have been noteworthy. Among those is Afghanistan. The report notes how the Constitution 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."
The State Department commented that non-Muslim minority groups, including Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, continued to face incidents of discrimination and persecution. Another problem is that of conversion. Many citizens, the report noted, understand conversion as contravening the tenets of Islam and Shariah.
In Egypt the report observed that, while the Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites, in practice the government places restrictions on these rights. In fact, respect for religious freedom by the authorities declined somewhat during the reporting period, according to the State Department.
This was mainly due to the failure to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of sectarian violence. This practice, the report added, contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged repetition of the assaults.
Christians and members of the Baha'i faith face personal and collective discrimination in many areas, the report affirmed. One example given was that of a court that sentenced a Coptic priest to five years of hard labor for officiating at a wedding between a Copt and a convert from Islam who allegedly presented false identification documentation.
In Pakistan the report didn't mince its words and said that: "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."
In general discrimination against religious minorities was widespread, and extremist groups and individuals targeted religious congregations.
Iran and Iraq were both singled out by the report as problematic countries when it comes to religious freedom. In the former it noted that despite constitutional guarantees, in practice those who are not Shi'a Muslims faced substantial discrimination.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was also mentioned, due to his "virulent anti-Semitic campaign," which included questioning the existence and scope of the Holocaust.
As well, the government enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by some Christian groups by closely monitoring their activities, closing some churches, and arresting Christian converts.
In Iraq the existence of constitutional guarantees was vitiated by violence from terrorists and criminal gangs that restricted the free exercise of religion and posed a significant threat to the country's vulnerable religious minorities, the report stated.
"Very few of the perpetrators of violence committed against Christians and other religious minorities in the country have been punished," the State Department noted.
India, where there have been numerous incidents of violence against Christians, was also dealt with in the report. The State Department commented that some state and local governments imposed limits on religious freedom.
Religious extremists committed numerous terrorist attacks throughout the country during the reporting period covered by the report. The State Department mentioned the violence that erupted in August 2008 in Orissa, when, according to government statistics, 40 persons died and 134 were injured.
According to several independent accounts, an estimated 3,200 refugees remained in relief camps, down from 24,000 in the immediate aftermath of the violence, the report noted.
In Burma the government continued to infiltrate and monitor activities of virtually all organizations, including religious ones, according to the report. Moreover, authorities systematically restricted efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom.
Restrictions on Christians and other non-Buddhist minority groups also continued throughout the country, the report added.
In Vietnam the report opined that, while respect for religious freedom continued to improve in some regards, significant problems remained. Thus, during the last year the government granted national recognition to five Protestant denominations and some additional religions.
But there were unresolved property claims with virtually all religious groups, some resulting in large-scale Catholic protests that were forcibly repressed.
The State Department had some strong words when it came to China. The report commented that during the 12-month period examined, officials continued to scrutinize and in some cases interfere with the activities of religious and spiritual groups.
As well, in some areas government officials violated the rights of members of unregistered Protestant and Catholic groups, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and members of the Falun Gong.
Authorities also strongly opposed the profession of loyalty to religious leadership outside the country, most notably the Pope and the Dalai Lama, the report noted. China's repression of religious freedom remained severe in Tibetan areas and in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the report stated.
In a press release issued the same day as the report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged "the prompt designation of "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) as well as implementation of targeted policies on those countries."
The statement explained that a country that has seriously violated religious liberty is required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to be designated a "country of particular concern," and the U.S. government is required to take action, ranging from negotiating a bilateral agreement to sanctions.
USCIRF explained that it wants 13 countries -- Burma, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam -- to be designated as CPCs.
The press release also stated that USCIRF recommended stronger actions be taken against the eight countries currently listed as CPCs by the State Department: Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
Benedict XVI recently dealt with the topic of religious freedom, when he addressed the new ambassador of Iran to the Holy See. In his Oct. 29 speech the Holy Father said that: "Among the universal rights, religious liberty and freedom of conscience occupy an essential place, because they are the source of the other liberties."
Interestingly, both the Catholic Church and a secular institution such as the State Department can both agree that religious liberty is a vital right and important for the international community. All the more reason to renew efforts to safeguard such a fundamental right in the many countries where it is under threat.