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U.S. Report Applauds Religious Freedom Improvements

ICC Note: Of 198 countries North Korea is the number one violator of religious freedom and China is not lagging far behind in the world ranking.

By Ethan Cole

9/21/07, Washington, (Christian Post) — The U.S. Department of State’s 2007 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom turned a few heads this past week by recognizing improvements – from significant to some – in certain countries in an otherwise long and typical list of religious freedom offenders.

The communist Southeast Asian country of Vietnam was highly praised by the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, John V. Hanford III, for not only showing improvements but going beyond what was expected of the government.

Vietnam , a former country of particular concern, was reported to have improved religious conditions by allowing many places of worship to register, easing restrictions and reducing harsher forms of suppression.

Hanford went as far as saying that the most significant new development in this year’s report was the positive progress found in Vietnam .

The religious freedom ambassador noted that the Vietnamese government released the last prisoner on the U.S. negotiation list last September. Moreover, Vietnam has banned the practice of forced renunciations of faith and reopened nearly all places of worship which previously had been forcibly closed.

“They’ve gone beyond that. They’ve allowed for a new Catholic seminary, a new Protestant institute – training institute to be set up,” said Hanford . “They’ve registered whole new religions that weren’t even legal before.”

However, the religious freedom official recognized that the Vietnamese government still had much room for improvement. The communist government still bans certain religious groups while some religious leaders are under house arrest. Yet Hanford was quick to comment that he believes most of these religious leaders were under arrest for political rather religious reasons.

Last year, Vietnam was taken off of the U.S. list for the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.

Saudi Arabia was also said to show some progress in religious tolerance, though not as significant as Vietnam . The Sunni Muslim-dominated country is accused of promoting religious intolerance worldwide through its religious textbooks. Hanford said, however, that the Saudi government has made efforts to curb distribution of these religious literatures.

“We do see progress, but it’s clear that there are still some intolerant references that remain,” commented Hanford , who credited King Abdullah for “very publicly” calling for tolerance.

“He (King Abdullah)’s moving to create a more tolerant society that allows people of minority faiths to practice more freely,” said the ambassador.

On the other hand, North Korea was described as the “worst violator of religious freedom in the world.” Though Hanford could not provide an accurate number of religious prisoners in North Korea , he said reports from defectors and sources in South Korea indicate severe suppression of religious practice.

Meanwhile, its communist neighbor China was criticized for its treatment of religious minorities including persecution of Christians who worship in unregistered house churches.

Hanford said the State Department was especially concerned with China this summer as “it appears that the government has been moving to crack down on religious groups to a certain extent and this has involved even the denying of visas or the expulsion of some Americans who are – who have been accused of practicing illegal religious activity there.

“The fear of many is that the government is wanting these westerners out of the country; that their goal is to crack down on any chance that there might be protest in the run-up to the Olympics,” he added. “And our hope is that the government will take the opportunity of the Olympics and of the worldwide spotlight that will be shown to respect religious citizens and their practice rather than to repress it.”

The 2007 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom covered 198 countries and was released on Sept. 14 in Washington , D.C.

In her remarks Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said “the United States will continue working to promote religious freedom, to nurture tolerance and to build a more peaceful world for people of all faiths.” This, she claimed, would be done through “our bilateral relationships, our work in international forums, and our many ongoing discussions on this issue with people across the globe.”