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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal 2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000


Part I: The American Experiment in International Religious Freedom

Religious freedom has always been at the core of American life and public policy. It is the first of the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights--a reflection of the founders' belief that freedom of religion and conscience is the cornerstone of liberty. They understood that no government was likely to protect the other core rights (e.g., freedom of speech or freedom from arbitrary arrest) if it did not honor th"sanctum sanctorum" of human conscience--the inherent and inviolable right of every human being to pursue ultimate truth and to believe and worship, or not, as part of that pursuit.

This core precept of American democracy survived 2 centuries of vigorous challenge. Like other aspects of the American ideal, religious liberty has been imperfectly applied; some religious traditions (Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and indigenous American religions, to name a few) have been resisted, and their adherents subject to discrimination and even persecution. But today, at the dawn of the third millenium, religions are flourishing in the United States, their respective traditions enriching not only their own adherents, but American public policy as well.

Grassroots Democracy

During the 1980's and 1990's, more and more American religious organizations became involved in the development and articulation of U.S. human rights policies abroad. Much of this activism stemmed from a shared belief in the universal dignity of the human person--the conviction that every human being is endowed with an intrinsic and inviolable worth, from which flows inalienable rights (a conviction reflected both in the American Declaration of Independence and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights). As American religious communities became more aware of human rights abuses abroad, they began to focus on the plight of coreligionists who were struggling to establish their own right to believe and to worship and who were encountering fierce resistance from those wielding political power.

During the 1990's some individuals and religious organizations--in particular those from Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish traditions--began to lobby the Administration and Congress. Their goal was to sharpen the focus of American foreign policy on religious persecution abroad. The result was a textbook case of democratic activism. Partly in response to this impulse, the Department of State by the mid-1990's began to intensify its attention to religious freedom. In 1996 Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced the establishment of an Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, composed of 20 American religious leaders and scholars. In an interim report issued in 1998 and a final report issued in 1999 the Committee recommended structural changes and foreign policy initiatives that would institutionalize the promotion of religious freedom as part of U.S. foreign policy. Throughout its tenure, the Committee was chaired and supported by the Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

During the same period, the Department of State responded to increased public and Congressional interest by preparing a report entitled "U.S. Policies in Support of Religious Freedom: Focus on Christians" (July 1997). The new Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, made it clear that promoting religious freedom was to be a priority during her tenure at the Department. In 1997 she issued instructions to all American Embassies and Consulates to increase U.S. advocacy, monitoring, and reporting on the issue. In multilateral venues such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, U.S. delegations made religious freedom a high priority. In 1998, responding to a recommendation by the Advisory Committee, Secretary Albright announced that she would appoint a senior level coordinator for religious freedom.

Meanwhile, Congress was engaging in an extended debate over a legislative approach to promoting religious liberty abroad. In May 1997, Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania introduced the first version of what was to become--some 18 months later--the International Religious Freedom Act. Their bill triggered a vigorous debate within the faith-based, nongovernmental organization (NGO), and human rights communities over the most appropriate and effective ways for the United States to confront religious persecution and discrimination abroad.

During the next year and a half a national dialogue evolved--joined not only by those who had lobbied from the beginning, but by faith-based, human rights, and foreign policy organizations from across the political and religious spectrums. Foreign governments, watching the debate with rising interest, expressed their concerns in capitals abroad and in Washington. The Department of State, led by Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck, made its views known through testimony before the House International Relations Committee and in other venues.

The issues were important--and controversial: How can the United States influence governments (including U.S. allies) that persecute or discriminate against their citizens on the basis of religion? What religions should be covered? What regions? Should economic sanctions be included, and, if so, should they be automatic? Should there be a special category of religious refugees? Should the senior U.S. religious freedom official be located in the White House or the State Department? Should a new governmental body, such as an independent commission, be created to provide the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress a separate source of policy recommendations? Is it legitimate for the United States to identify one form of persecution for special treatment, or would doing so create a troubling "hierarchy of rights" that could marginalize other victims of persecution? Could victims of religious persecution actually be harmed by a new U.S. focus on their plight?

These and other issues were debated intensely throughout 1997 and 1998. In March 1998, Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma introduced in the Senate an alternative bill which attempted to build on the commentary that Wolf-Specter had generated. In May 1998, the House passed a revised version of the latter bill. During the next 6 months, a few dedicated and passionate Congressional staff members, joined at times by State Department representatives and other key actors, met to hammer out a bill that would have broad bipartisan support. In October 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was passed unanimously by both Houses of Congress and was signed immediately by the President.

A Legislative Mandate Comes to Life

The various streams that led to the Act had their source in the American passion for religious liberty and the conviction that it was the birthright of every human being. Herein lay the greatest potential for an effective U.S. religious freedom policy abroad: While the Act paid homage to American history and the first Amendment, it drew heavily on international standards grounded in universal truths. It cited the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which notes that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience."

In short, the IRFA made no attempt to impose "the American way" on foreign governments. Rather, it put the weight of American foreign policy behind the proposition that all nations must adhere to the standards of international behavior that they themselves have accepted, including the mandate to protect the universal right of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. The Act was universal in scope: it targeted no region and covered all religions. It provided sanctions for the worst violators of religious freedom, but sanctions were not automatic. Instead, the President was given wide latitude to choose the most effective response to severe violations.

In order to carry out this policy, the Act created three core mechanisms: an Office of International Religious Freedom under an Ambassador at Large, located in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; an Annual Report that covers every foreign country, coupled with an annual identification of severe violators; and a separate, bipartisan U.S. Commission to make independent recommendations.

The Office of International Religious Freedom. In August 1998, Robert A. Seiple assumed the office of Special IRF Adviser to the President and Secretary of State. In May 1999, he was sworn in as the first Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. During his 2-year tenure, Seiple built his office into a staff of 10, including foreign service, military, and civil service officers. Its mandate is to promote religious freedom as a core tenet of U.S. human rights policy by monitoring religious persecution and discrimination worldwide; meeting with foreign governments, faith-based groups, and NGO's; integrating the issue into the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy; and overseeing the production of the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. The Office is also charged with advising the Secretary of State on the designation of "countries of particular concern" under the IRF Act.

Seiple's methodology has been to "promote, not punish." He and his staff have visited 26 countries-many of them among the world's worst abusers of religious freedom--in order to explain his emphasis, and that of the IRF Act, on international standards as the basis for U.S. actions. They have met with hundreds of foreign officials, religious leaders, NGO's, and human rights groups at home and abroad. They have heard the stories of people who fear for their well-being and safety because of their religious beliefs. They have told allies and adversaries alike that freedom of religion and conscience is not a western invention but flows from the traditions of universal and inviolable human dignity present in every world religion.

The Office of International Religious Freedom also has articulated and advocated U.S. policy in academic and policy conferences and media events throughout the country and abroad. It has initiated a series of conferences, cosponsored by the Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, on religious freedom and foreign policy. It has implemented a highly successful program of outreach to U.S. Muslim leaders and plans to expand this program to include other American religious traditions. It has provided funding--through the Department's Human Rights and Democracy Fund--for several NGO-led reconciliation programs in religion-based conflicts. Ambassador Seiple has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House International Relations Committee and its Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, the Helsinki Commission, and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

In all its endeavors, the Office of International Religious Freedom has sought (in the words of the Act) to "stand with the persecuted," to provide hope to the millions throughout the world who suffer because they dare to believe in, and to worship, an authority beyond the state.

The Annual Report. The first Annual Report on International Religious Freedom was issued by the Department of State in September 1999. It contained chapters on the status of religious freedom in 194 countries worldwide. Each chapter was initially drafted in an American Embassy or Consulate abroad and then compiled and edited by the Office of Country Reports and Asylum Affairs in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Its introduction focused on the connection between concepts of universal human dignity and freedom of religion and explained some of the report's analytical methods. Its Executive Summary highlighted various categories of restrictions on religious liberty worldwide, while detailing U.S. efforts to address those restrictions.

Religious organizations, NGO's, and human rights groups generally hailed the first report as an important first step in the battle against religious persecution. Foreign governments' responses varied widely, from outright hostility to private gratitude. Some insisted that the United States had no right to invoke international standards unilaterally and that such issues could only be addressed in international forums. Others (including some democratic allies) asserted a right of state-supported scrutiny of, and hostility toward, certain minority religions.

Indeed, as elaborated elsewhere in this Report, the United States agrees that issues of religious freedom ought to be addressed in international forums. It does so regularly and vigorously. But the United States also believes that all nations have the right, and the obligation, to address on a bilateral basis with other nations those international standards that they themselves have accepted. Further, the international provison for freedom of religion and conscience is grounded in state acceptance of minority religions rather than in state-supported skepticism or hostility. Religious freedom is a good, not a danger from which citizens must be protected--a fact that even some mature democracies have not yet accepted.

The U.S. Commission on IRF. The IRF Act also mandated the creation of an independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, consisting of nine eminent American leaders from a variety of faiths. Five were appointed by the President and Democratic Congressional leaders; four by Republican Congressional leaders. The Ambassador at Large also sits on the Commission as an ex officio, nonvoting member.

The Commission was established for 4 years beginning in May 1999, and each Commissioner was given a 2-year term. The first Chairman was Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a Democratic appointee. The deputy chairman was Michael K. Young, Dean of the George Washington University Law Center and a Republican appointee. To emphasize its bipartisan nature, the Commission agreed that its chair and deputy would rotate annually between appointees of the two parties. Accordingly, in May 2000, the chair passed to Elliot Abrams, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (Republican appointee), and the deputy chair to Firuz Kazemzadeh, Secretary of External Affairs of the National Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States (Democratic appointee).

Other Democratic appointees are Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of the Archdiocese of Newark; Dr. Laila al-Mariati, Past President of the Muslim Women's League; and Justice Charles Z. Smith of the Washington State Supreme Court. Other Republican appointees are Nina Shea, Director of the Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, and John Bolton of the American Enterprise Institute. The Commission's staff is headed by its Executive Director, Steven McFarland.

As part of its mandate to recommend policies on religious freedom, the Commission prepares its own annual report, the first of which was issued in May 2000. This report focused on three countries of concern--China, Sudan and Russia--and provided extensive recommendations for U.S. policymakers. It also contained a thorough review of the State Department's first Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, including a series of recommendations on how it might be improved.

The Commission has begun to play an important role in the articulation and implementation of U.S. policy. Its members and staff have met with key Department of State officials, including the Secretary of State and the Under Secretary for Political Affairs. Commission members have traveled abroad to gather information and to advocate religious freedom. They have held public hearings and testified before the U.S. Congress on many occasions. Commission recommendations--communicated publicly or privately to the Administration--have already had an impact on key policy decisions, including the Secretary of State's designation of "countries of particular concern" under the IRF Act.

The Scorecard. On balance the new U.S. strategy for promoting religious freedom has had a promising beginning. From its origins in the minds of a few committed individuals, to its implementation in the actions of Secretary Albright, President Clinton and the U.S. Congress, U.S. religious freedom policy has provided a case study--both of the American democratic process and of the universal applicability of America's founding precepts.

Energized and formed by an American approach to freedom of religion, the policy has nevertheless been articulated as part of an international covenant, in which nations commit themselves to mutual accountability. There are risks in this approach--not least the exposure of the United States to criticism from others. But if it is sound, U.S. policy will withstand--and profit from--the scrutiny of other nations, human rights organizations, and religious groups.

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 16, 2000, Ambassador Robert Seiple articulated his sense of how far U.S. policy has come, and the enormous task that remains. "Those of us who are charged with implementing the International Religious Freedom Act," he said, "have had some modest but invigorating victories--some religious prisoners freed, some religious refugees assisted, a few bad laws repealed or altered. But we must take the long view: None of us can claim, nor should we expect, that the millions who suffer for their religious beliefs will have been loosed from their torments 18 months after the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act or because of the actions of my office or those of the independent U.S. Commission. But I believe that we have made a start. Together, we have planted seeds--seeds of hope and of future action. With God's help, those seeds are taking root and will one day bear fruit."

Part II: Freedom of Religion and Conscience as a Cornerstone of Democracy

One of the most encouraging developments of the past decade has been the dramatic increase in the number of nations aspiring to democratic governance. In Europe, central Asia, Africa, and Latin America, countries are struggling to develop and implement the norms of representative government. As noted in the 1999 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, the number of democracies in the world almost doubled during the decade of the 1990's.

That report also noted that freedom alone is no guarantee of human dignity. Adopting the forms of democracy does not always signify an acceptance of universal human rights, including the right of religious freedom. This is sometimes true because democratic majorities are tied to a particular religious tradition, or to a tradition of religious skepticism, and are resistant to new and unfamiliar religions. In some aspiring democracies, minority religions are associated with unpopular ethnic groups or with unwanted foreign influence. For these and other reasons, democracy alone is no guarantee of religious freedom.

And yet it is empirically indisputable that representative governments protect fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion and conscience, far more effectively than other political systems. Several characteristics of democracy tend to bolster religious freedom, including the principles of equality before the law, protections for minorities, and a commitment to notions of universal human dignity and the protection of fundamental human rights. Democratic governments were the driving force in the promulgation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In addition, most democratic traditions recognize that fundamental rights are not "grants" from the state or society but exist prior to both. If they do not--if human rights are in fact created by governments--then they cannot be said to be "universal" as the world acknowledged them to be in the 1948 Universal Declaration. "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights," notes the Declaration, and are "endowed with reason and conscience." If governments were the source of rights, governments could abolish them.

Moreover, the incompatibility of authoritarianism and religious liberty is grounded in an empirical political reality: the state that honors and nourishes freedom of religion and conscience is one that acknowledges its own limits. It is a state that posits the priority of the individual and of society. It is, in short, a state that embraces the axiom of democracy--government exists to serve society and the individual, not the other way around.

Thus, while democratic states are the most likely guarantors of religious freedom, so too is religious freedom an essential component of democracy. The right of religious liberty is an obstacle to "majoritarian tyranny"--the practices of democratic majorities who would coerce minorities in matters of fundamental conscientious conviction. Nations that are struggling to implement democracy, and in which one religion is historically dominant, will profit from this understanding of human freedom. Healthy and vigorous democracies do not attempt to control or manage the human quest for ultimate meaning and truth. They understand that this endeavor is essential to human freedom and dignity--and must be protected.

Freedom of religion and conscience also contributes to democracy in that the free expression of religious conviction--guaranteed in international covenants--plays a key role in debates over public policy. Each religious tradition has a moral code, a way of understanding who we are and how we ought to order our lives together. The articulation of these understandings in the public square is not something to be feared by democracies. Rather it makes a vital contribution to the development of public policy.

This is true because democracy is more than mere democratic procedure. Its vitality, and even its survival, can never be assumed. Democracy is an ever-continuing experiment, testing the capacity of human beings--often from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds--to govern themselves. The success of the experiment relies in part on the successful adoption of democratic procedures such as the universal franchise, separation of powers, or the secret ballot. But history teaches that the habit of democracy is grounded in and transmitted by the prior institutions of society, especially the family and religious institutions.

Mature and aspiring democracies alike must revere the right to freedom of religion and conscience, even as they develop the forms of democratic governance. Governments that purport to represent all their citizens must guarantee and nurture this right, which lies at the core of every human life, as well as encourage mutual respect among their citizens. These governments must acknowledge a core reality, demonstrated by history: New and unfamiliar religions do not threaten democracy; they enrich it. It is a lesson that must be learned and relearned for the ongoing, global democratic experiment to succeed.

Part III. What Has Changed in the Annual Report

As noted above, the response to the first Annual Report on International Religious Freedom from NGO's, human rights groups, and religious groups was overwhelmingly positive. Many provided constructive suggestions of fact, tone, and organization. We have made every effort to ensure that each report is factually accurate, balanced, and fair. Our intent is to articulate the status of religious freedom in each country chapter, permitting the reader to draw conclusions concerning the implications of the restrictions or abuses cited. In the Executive Summary, we categorize some of the restrictions and abuses, and discuss U.S. actions to alter them. In order to show that all the news is not bad, we also discuss some of the improvements in religious freedom worldwide.

The country chapters have been reorganized to make them more "reader friendly." Each chapter will contain an Introduction, designed to provide the reader with a broad overview of the status of religious freedom during the 12 months covered by the report (July 1, 1999 to June 30, 2000). Three major sections will follow: The first will cover "Government Policies on Freedom of Religion" and will contain a variety of subheadings to guide the reader, including subsections on the "Legal/Policy Framework" and "Religious Demography." Subsections entitled "Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom," and "Governmental Abuses of Religious Freedom" will not only discuss restrictions and abuses but give the context in which those problems occurred.

The second major section will discuss "Societal Attitudes;" the third, "U.S. Government Policy."

A Final Word on Respect. If there is a core assumption underlying this report, it is that religions, like human beings, are worthy of respect. Were that not the case, there would be no need for a U.S. policy on international religious freedom and no need for this report. It exists not as an indictment of religions but as a testimony to the value of religion and to respect for freedom of conscience. We have tried to demonstrate our respect for all religious traditions in this report, a respect that is genuine.

Once again, we invite our readers to provide comments on the report. They can do so by writing to the

Office of International Religious Freedom
(DRL/IRF), Room 4829,
U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC 20520.

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