WASHINGTON, D.C. The message was clear, even if the U.S. State Department did not heighten its official sanctions in its annual international religious freedom report: The U.S. government sees mounting threats to religious freedom in the Middle East.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the report Sept. 13 at the State Department. And while she applauded the democracy movements in the Middle East, she said the upheaval has "also exposed religious and ethnic minorities to danger."
"They cannot change one form of repression for another," Clinton said.
Michael Posner, who oversees the international religious freedom office as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, said the agency is particularly concerned about the plight of Christians in Syria, many of whom have fled persecution elsewhere in the Middle East and now are facing persecution again.
In Egypt, Posner said the United States is pushing for the government there to pass the "unified law," which would allow more freedom to build houses of worship across faiths. Currently it is extremely difficult for minority religions to obtain building permits. The State Department also said the Egyptian government had failed to prosecute "numerous perpetrators of violence against Coptic Christians."
China, which the State Department re-designated as a "country of particular concern" (CPC), a label reserved for the most egregious violators of religious freedom, also fell under sharp criticism. Posner described "a deteriorating human rights situation" there, particularly in regard to the oppression of house churches. The report cites the Chinese government for preventing house church leaders from participating in the Lausanne Conference in South Africa last year, as well as beating and temporarily detaining some of those leaders. "We will continue to raise these issues with China," Posner promised.
Some religious freedom experts had thought the agency might add a country to the list of CPCs, which remains unchanged at eight: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. The top candidate for the inauspicious recognition was Pakistan, where the country's only Christian cabinet member, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in March. In January, Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer also was assassinated for his support of religious minorities, and in late August, Taseer's son was kidnapped.
Both Taseer and Bhatti had prominently pushed for reform in the nation's harsh blasphemy laws, which prohibit criticism of Islam. Pakistan, so far, has not reformed the laws despite urging from the United States. The events of the last year in Pakistan are the result of an "extremist component," Posner told me. "They are asserting themselves," in the face of reforms. But he sees steps in the right direction (see the section from the State Department's report on Pakistan): Posner said the government could have, for example, left Bhatti's post as minister of minorities vacant, but instead appointed Bhatti's brother, Paul. "But the message is we have concerns," Posner added.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government arm that monitors abuses abroad, urged the State Department to add new CPCs, like Pakistan and Vietnam. The State Department usually publishes its annual report in the spring but delayed it this year so that its release would coincide with other reports on human rights. The agency can designate CPCs at any time, though.
Some religious freedom experts have said that the State Department is giving the religious freedom issue more attention than it has in the recent past.
Back in March, Clinton acknowledged at a House of Representatives committee hearing that the U.S. government hadn't given proper attention to the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East. Since then the State Department has set up a grant for victims of religious persecution who are facing "long term detention or death sentence."
This past spring the U.S. Senate also finally confirmed the ambassador for international religious freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, giving the international religious freedom office at the State Department a prominent voice as well as a closer tie to the secretaryCook worked with the Clinton White House and is a personal friend of the secretary of state.
The State Department also secured a long-sought victory in the United Nations this year, when a defamation of religions resolution, essentially a blasphemy law pushed by Islamic countries, did not pass for the first time in 12 years.