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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal International Religious Freedom Report
Fact Sheet released by the Office of the Spokesman, Bureau of Public Affairs
U.S. Department of State, September 9, 1999
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The following provides highlights but is not a summary of the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. The full report, including the executive summary, will be available at www.state.gov after 1:00pm on September 9, 1999.

Today, the State Department delivers to Congress the first Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. The Department--specifically the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which includes the Office of Religious Freedom--carries a statutory responsibility to prepare these reports annually.

The report seeks to create a comprehensive record of the state of religious freedom around the world, and to highlight the most significant violations of this right. It documents that violations of religious freedom, including religious persecution, are not confined to any one country, religion or nationality. Throughout the world, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and other believers continue to suffer for their faith. Too much of the world's population still lives in countries in which religious freedom is restricted or prohibited. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes remain determined to control religious belief and practice. Other regimes are hostile to minority or "unapproved" religions. Some tolerate, and thereby encourage, persecution or discrimination. Still other governments have adopted discriminatory legislation or policies that give preferences to favored religions while disadvantaging others. Some democratic states have indiscriminately identified minority religions as dangerous "sects" or "cults." The following provides highlights of some of the findings of the Executive Summary and the 194 Reports. It is neither comprehensive nor complete, nor should it be regarded as a list of any kind.

Totalitarian or Authoritarian Attempts to Control Religious Belief or Practice

  • Afghanistan lacks a recognized government, but is under the substantial control of the Taliban movement, which has engaged in persecution and killing of Afghan Shi'as in significant part because of their religious beliefs.

  • In Burma, the Government arrests and imprisons Buddhist monks who promote human and political rights. Security forces destroyed or looted churches, mosques, and Buddhist monasteries in some insurgent ethnic minority areas. In some insurgent Chin ethnic minority areas, security forces used coercive measures to induce Christians to convert to Buddhism.

  • In China, government intolerance of unregistered religious activity has led in some areas to persecution of people, on the basis of their religious practice, through harassment, prolonged detention and incarceration in prison or "reform-through-labor" camps, and police closure of places of worship and other holy places. In other areas, government supervision of religious activity is minimal. There were credible reports of incidents of abuse or torture of Buddhist monks and nuns. Some members of the following religions have been subject to persecution--Tibetan Buddhists, Muslim Uighurs, and Protestants and Roman Catholics who do not belong to the "official" churches.

  • In Cuba, although these practices are not uniform and do not affect all denominations at all times, the Government monitors and controls religious institutions, including surveillance, infiltration and harassment, evictions from places of worship, and preventive detentions of religious activists.

  • The Government of Iran has implemented policies designed to eradicate the Baha'i faith through prolonged imprisonment of Baha'is, confiscation and desecration of holy places, denial of the right to assemble, denial of access to higher education, and denial of civil rights. The Government has executed Baha'is because of their religious beliefs. Other religious minorities, including Jews, Sunni Muslims, and Christians, suffer varying degrees of officially sanctioned religious discrimination.

  • In Iraq, the Government of Saddam Hussein has conducted a campaign of murder, summary execution and protracted arbitrary arrest against the religious leaders and adherents of the Shi'a Muslim population. Security forces have murdered senior Shi'a clerics, desecrated mosques and holy sites, and arrested tens of thousands of Shi'a.

  • The Government of Vietnam uses a registration process to control and monitor religious activity, restricting any practice by groups other than officially sanctioned organizations. Clergy from many religious groups--including Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Protestant and Roman Catholic--reportedly have been detained arbitrarily without charge.
State Hostility Toward Minority or Non-Approved Religions
  • In Pakistan, discriminatory legislation has encouraged an atmosphere of religious intolerance, which has led to acts of violence by extremists against members of religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, and Zikris.

  • The Government of Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni majority, and some instances of arbitrary detention, travel restrictions, and political and economic discrimination against members of the Shi'a minority have occurred. Non-Muslims are required to worship privately.

  • In Serbia, a predominantly Christian Orthodox country, authorities employed the killing, torture, rape, and forced mass emigration of Kosovar Albanians, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, in an effort to drive them from the country.

  • In Sudan, an ongoing civil war provided the context for abuses against religious minorities by the regime. Christians, practitioners of traditional indigenous religions, and Muslims who deviate from the official interpretation of Islam are subject to killing, prolonged arbitrary detention or imprisonment, threats, violence, and forced conversion to Islam.
State Neglect of Discrimination Against, or Persecution of, Minority or Non-Approved Religions
  • In Egypt, members of the non-Muslim Christian minority generally worship without interference, but there is some societal and governmental discrimination. There remain discrepancies between official and unofficial accounts of last year's police brutality in al-Kush, where some assert there were religious elements. The Government has re-opened the investigation. Government approval of church repairs is becoming less cumbersome.

  • In India state governments initially downplayed a sharp upswing in violence perpetrated by extremists against religious minorities and their places of worship. Responses by state and local prosecutors to these events were often inadequate.

  • In Indonesia, while central Government policy is to promote religious tolerance, there have been incidents of violence between groups of believers that have gone unpunished by local authorities.
Discriminatory Legislation or Policies Disadvantaging Certain Religions.
  • In Russia, a restrictive 1997 law on religion replaced a 1990 law that had encouraged religious freedom. The new law creates categories of religious communities with differing levels of legal status and privilege. Communities that cannot prove their existence in Russia for 15 years are placed at a disadvantage in status and rights, according to the law.

  • The Government of Turkey has supported a ban on the wearing of religious head garments in government offices and state-run facilities for 50 years. In June 1999, 75 defendants went on trial for protesting a ban on headscarves. Of these, 51 defendants, including 4 women, could face the death penalty on charges of attempting to change the constitutional order by force. However, in August 1999 the new Government introduced amnesty legislation that would allow those students expelled for wearing headscarves and beards to reapply.
Stigmatization of Religions by Wrongfully Associating Them With Dangerous "Cults" or "Sects"
  • During the past decade, governments and parliaments in a number of countries have focused their attention on the growth of new religions, including dangerous cults such as Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, or the Solar Temple in Canada and Switzerland. Such measures have on occasion led some governments to stigmatize certain new religions or sects of long-standing religions by associating them with such groups.

  • Since 1995, the parliaments or Governments of Belgium, France, and Germany have produced parliamentary reports on new cults and religions, and on elements of long-standing religions. The French and Belgian reports included lists of groups that subsequently have been used in and outside the government as "sect lists." The final German report concluded that new religious movements do not present a threat to society and that their activities are not cause for political concern.
U.S. Actions

The United States seeks to promote religious freedom, not simply to criticize or to make headlines. Such vital work usually is done out of the limelight, often without acknowledgement, occasionally without knowing its result. But the work must, and does, take place. It happens when an American diplomat, sometimes at the risk of safety, presses authorities to know where the priest has been taken and why. It happens when the United States speaks out in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights or other multilateral institutions on behalf of prisoners of conscience. It happens when a U.S. Ambassador, after discussing with a senior official his country's important strategic relationship with the U.S., raises that "one more thing"--access to the imprisoned mufti, or information on the missionary who has disappeared. It happens when senior U.S. officials, responsible for balancing and pursuing all of America's vital national interests, make it clear that a single persecuted human being, perhaps obscure and insignificant in the grand affairs of state, matters to the world's most powerful nation.

Conclusion

The objective of the United States is to help those persecuted because of their religious faith. One important means to that end is emphasizing the value of religious freedom in articulating and safeguarding the dignity of the human person. All men and women, whether religious or not, have a stake in protecting the core truths expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: each of us is "born free and equal in dignity and rights" and is "endowed with reason and conscience." To preserve religious freedom is to reaffirm and defend the centrality of those truths--and to strengthen the very heart of human rights.

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