State Department Report Spotlights Religious Freedom
March 21, 2005
Recently, the State Department released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004. According to the preface to this year’s report, these reports provide “a key framework that the United States and others around the world use in assessing the state of human freedom and in marshalling efforts to advance it.”
Among other areas, the Country Reports highlight and update important developments in religious freedom. The International Religious Freedom Act requires that countries engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom be designated as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). Iran, China, Burma, Sudan, and North Korea were re-designated as CPCs, and, for the first time, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam were so designated. Following are summaries of findings on the countries newly designated as CPC’s.
The laws of Eritrea provide for freedom of religion, but in practice the government restricts this right. There are four government-sanctioned religions in Eritrea: Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Catholic and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. Members of these four faiths were allowed to meet freely. However, members of non-sanctioned churches suffered detention, harassment and discrimination.
In Saudi Arabia, Islam is the official religion and the law requires all citizens to be Muslim; there is no separation of Church and State and the public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited. Non-Muslims are generally able to worship privately, but open displays of non-Muslim religious practices, if discovered by government officials, can result in arrest, lashing, deportation and torture. Conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death. Distribution of non-Muslim religious materials, such as Bibles, is illegal. And, under certain legal interpretations, judges may discount the testimony of persons who do not follow the correct doctrine.
The Constitution of Vietnam provides for freedom of worship; however, the government continued to restrict activity considered at variance with the law. The government requires religious groups to be registered; this process is used to control and monitor the churches of Vietnam. The government must approve of the group’s leadership and the overall scope of its activities. The opening of new churches, the ordination of clerics, the establishment of religious teaching institutions and the entry of students into these institutions all require government sanction. The Vietnamese government continued to allow physical abuse of religious believers and continued to hold many religious prisoners. On the positive side, however, after CPC designation, the government released a new Ordinance on Religion about which some Vietnam religious leaders are cautiously optimistic.
For complete information on the report, and religious freedom issues around the world, see the full content, available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2004/.
Paul Mullinger lives in northern California where he serves as a minister at the Church of Scientology of Sacramento and helps to oversee the Church’s pastoral counseling services.