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US Condemns Religious Rights Abuses in Uzbekistan , Iran and China

By BosNewsLife News Center

9/17/06 Uzbekistan , Iran , China (BosNewsLife) At least some of the conclusions were expected to be disputed by several Christian human rights groups who have expressed concerns over growing cases of persecution in for instance Vietnam .

Chan Dang-Vu, North American representative of Viet Tan, the Vietnam Reform Party, already told the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus that President George W. Bush should use his upcoming visit to Vietnam to increase pressure on the Communist nation to improve its human rights record.

With Vietnam now headed by a reformist president and negotiating for membership in the World Trade Organization, the time was ripe to pressure the southeast Asian nation, Viet Tan and other groups suggested.

Presenting the religious report Friday, September 15, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not address reported abuses in Vietnam specifically, but made clear that the 9/11 terror attacks against the United States made Americans more aware of their responsibility of promoting religious freedom. She also said Americans are more determined to honor the ideals of a democratic society that protect and respect religious differences.

DEEPLY ROOTED

“Religious freedom is deeply rooted in our principles and our history as a nation,” said Rice. “And it is now integral to our efforts to combat terrorism and the ideology of hatred that fuels it. In today’s world, our goal of fostering religious freedom and tolerance beyond our borders is an essential component, even, of national security.”

The “Report on International Religious Freedom”, based on reporting from US diplomats and non-governmental Organizations, covers nearly 200 countries and territories around the world. The 1998 Act of Congress provides for sanctions against those deemed to be the worst violators of religious freedom.

Last year, the list of so-called “countries of particular concern” included China , Eritrea , Iran , Burma , North Korea , Saudi Arabia , Sudan and Vietnam .

In remarks broadcast by the Voice of America (VOA) network, US Ambassador-at-large for Religious Freedom John Hanford said the State Department will not announce a new list for a matter of weeks, a move observers said would give time for last minute talks with countries that may be cited.

MOST RESTRICTIVE

But under questioning he strongly suggested that Uzbekistan could be added to the list, saying the authoritarian Central Asian government was already the most restrictive in the region and had added “outrageous” amendments to the state law governing religious practice.

He said the law restricts non-Muslims, and that even Islamic groups have come under suspicion of links to political extremists. “The most serious problem over the last few years in Uzbekistan has been the inappropriate arrest of some Muslims who are simply observant, maybe praying five times a day,” he explained. “Perhaps they have a beard, and just on the basis of these outward signs, they are suspected of having terrorist ties. And in some cases, these people have been horribly treated.”

The report also criticized Iran for its “harsh and oppressive treatment” of religious minorities at a time when there are also worries about Tehran ‘s suspected nuclear arms program.

The State Department said it found a further deterioration in what it called “the extremely poor status of respect for religious freedom” in Iran . It cited reports of imprisonment, harassment, intimidation and discrimination based on religious beliefs in Iran . Christians and Jews are among the targeted religious minorities, the report added.

IRANIAN CHRISTIANS

It confirmed fears among Iranian Christians that there was a “further deterioration” of the apparently very poor status of religious freedom in Iran , and claimed the situation had worsened following the election of hard line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year.

The report also said China ‘s respect for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience remained poor, especially for those Christians and other religious groups who are not registered with the government.

The State Department credited the government of Saudi Arabia , even though it still bans religious practice outside of the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam, with efforts to curb intolerance. Human rights groups have said that a growing number of foreign Christian workers have been expelled from the country because of their church activities.

Ambassador Hanford also said however that authorities are trying to improve the situation by taking action to eliminate negative references to other faiths in school texts, and public declarations by Saudi leaders.

SAUDI GOVERNMENT

“We are very encouraged by the position of the Saudi government and by their responsiveness, as well as by a number of statements that have been made by King Abdullah, which I think are forward-leaning within that context: promoting tolerance, standing up before the whole Organization of Islamic Countries and issuing a call for greater tolerance. So we see things moving in the right direction,” he added.

The report also said Vietnam had shown “significant” improvements in religious freedom in the past year, despite reports of a crackdown on for instance Montegnard Degar Christians. BosNewsLife learned that several of the over 350 prisoners have been tortured and some killed in recent months.

Another country credited with improvements is Sudan . Ambassador Hanford said despite documented human rights abuses in Darfur , there was an improvement in religious freedom for Sudanese Christians and others in the southern region stemming from last year’s north-south peace accord.

VOA quoted him as cautioning however that while the country’s national-unity government and legislature now include non-Muslims, problems continue concerning efforts to impose Islamic Sharia law on all those living in the capital, Khartoum