World Video | Defence | Foreign Affairs | Natural Events | Trade | NZ in World News | NZ National News Video | NZ Regional News | Search


On-the-Record Briefing Religious Freedom Report

On-the-Record Briefing on the Release of the Department of State's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom

John V. Hanford III, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom

Washington, DC
September 15, 2006

(10:15 a.m. EST)

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Thank you, Madame Secretary. It's a great honor for me to serve a Secretary and a President who cares so deeply about the freedom of people everywhere to practice their faith. And I'm pleased that Secretary Rice was able to release the report personally again this year.

Religious freedom is a universal right that is cherished by Americans as our first freedom and enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Our commitment to this issue goes all the way back to our earliest days as a nation. George Washington wrote in 1789, "The liberty enjoyed by the people of these states of worshiping almighty God agreeably to their consciences is not only among the choicest of their blessings but also of their rights."

Today, as Secretary Rice said, religious liberty remains at the heart of our experience and our character as Americans. This is the reason why we are so fervent in our pursuit of religious freedom abroad as a core element of American foreign policy. And yet, our policy promoting religious freedom is an effort that unites us with people of faith all around the world. Our work together to respect everyone's freedom of belief serves as an antidote to religious persecution and discrimination and as a defense against the scourge of sectarian violence.

Each year, literally hundreds of officers and staff at our embassies and consulates abroad and regional bureaus here at the State Department and in the Office of International Religious Freedom are engaged in monitoring, defending, and promoting religious freedom around the globe. They do so with the close collaboration of non-governmental organizations and individuals who are committed to documenting the status of religious freedom, often at the risk of their own safety and freedom. And we're especially grateful for their help.

The 2006 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom covers 197 countries and territories. The pages of each country report distill the experience of the past year into a whole that we hope will spur debate in other countries, hold governments accountable to their international commitments, speak out on behalf of the persecuted, and in the end, provide a sense of how well we are living up to our own ideals.

In many countries, we're pleased to be able to document efforts by governments to protect religious freedom. In too many countries, governments still repress their people's religious expression through force or harassment. Some authoritarian governments such as North Korea routinely suppress religious expression which they clearly see as a challenge to their political dominance. China allows some religious expression, but severely represses the activities of religious groups not officially sanctioned by the state. Others single out minority religions for abuse, as Burma and Iran do, or equate certain types of religious expression with security threats.

Such abuses are particularly unfortunate where, as in Uzbekistan, they undermine a long-standing societal tradition of religious harmony. Along with other countries as diverse as Eritrea and China, Uzbekistan also provides an example of how governments often choose to use repressive registration laws as a means of restricting non-approved religions or simply to outlaw certain faiths entirely. Over the past year, the religion law in Uzbekistan has been further tightened, and congregations harassed and deregistered.

Next door in Turkmenistan, by contrast, where previously, only two religious groups were allowed legal status, we've now seen nine new religions and denominations allowed to register, an opening upon which we hope that government will continue to build. Other governments too are taking important steps to open the door to greater religious freedom. Although serious problems remain in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, their governments are among those making efforts to curb extremist ideology and encourage religious tolerance.

In Afghanistan, the government is seeking to uphold constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, despite a longstanding culture of intolerance. In India, the national government is leading efforts to promote greater respect for religious freedom, although there have been instances in which some state and local governments have attempted to limit this freedom.

Indonesia and other religiously diverse countries face similar challenges, and we support efforts by governments in such countries to counter extremist sentiments, to ensure equality for religious minorities, and to encourage interfaith understanding.

Events over the past year, such as the "Mohammed cartoons" printed across Europe, which many around the world felt deeply offensive, point to the need to go beyond protection of religious freedom and law to a concerted effort to create the conditions for harmony, mutual understanding, and respect within our societies. It is the broad vision of religious freedom that Americans are striving toward in our own country and that we hope to see flourish in other nations.

In putting together this report, we never lose sight of the courageous men, women and children around the world who are suffering because of their faith. It is our firm hope that this report will provide encouragement to their aspirations, confidence that their stories will not remain untold nor their plight forgotten in the press of world affairs. We offer this report in the hope that as it shines a light on their suffering, repression and tolerance will whither under that light, and harmony and freedom will flourish.

Now, I'll be pleased to take your questions.

QUESTION: You singled out Uzbekistan for its problems in terms of religious freedom. Why was Uzbekistan not on the list of countries of particular concern?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, this year we have not yet come forward with our countries of particular concern. That will happen in several weeks. This is a process that happens annually. And so it remains to be seen which countries will be on that list. I will say that in our assessment, the status of religious freedom declined in Uzbekistan, mainly for those accused of being connected with dangerous sects or extremists, as well as for many Protestant groups. And there was an amendment to the law on religion, which is already the most restrictive in central Asia that severely increased penalties for violations. They are outrageous now. There are fines of up to 300 times the minimum monthly wage for violations of the law and religious activities such as illegal meetings, up to three years in jail for just distributing religious materials and, you know, we had a number of instances in which there were raids and people were detained and tried and fined.

The most serious problem over the last few years in Uzbekistan has been inappropriate arrest of some Muslims who are simply observant, maybe praying five times a day, perhaps they have a beard, and just on the basis of these outward signs are suspected of having terrorist ties. And in some cases, these people have been horribly treated. And so this, over time, has been our most serious concern regarding Uzbekistan.

QUESTION: So do you anticipate they will be on the list when it's released? Is that your recommendation?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: It's too early to say, and I've not yet made by recommendations to Secretary Rice. And this is a very deliberative process here in the State Department as I think those of you who work here regularly understand. But I think it's a country, regardless of whether it's on the list or not, that deserves to be singled out for its intolerance towards many Muslims as well as to some Christians and some other groups as well.

QUESTION: On Saudi Arabia. Recently you announced some new policies that the government was going to institute. Can you talk about whether you see those moving along and whether you think that it's possible that Saudi Arabia could be taken off the list of countries of particular concern next time?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, we did announce two or three months ago a number of policies which we had been able, through extensive discussions, to confirm and understand and identify and clarify through these discussions with Saudi Arabia. And we found some reason for encouragement in these policies. One of the ones that I think means a great deal to Americans is a commitment to halt the dissemination of intolerant literature and extremist ideology. And these had found their way even into textbooks within a few miles here of where we sit.

We've been given assurances that, as of this school year, those textbooks will no longer contain intolerant references to other faiths. And Christians, Jews, and other Muslims, other than the Hambali Muslims, came in for some pretty severe criticism in these textbooks and materials in the past. This process of revising textbooks and religious materials and retraining teachers is an ongoing process which we are told will culminate within a year or two with all of the materials used in schools, even in Saudi Arabia or sent to other places so that this sort of intolerance will be removed.

We think this is an extremely important development. This sort of hateful language can breed, can breed resentment towards people of other faith, even towards other Muslims and can have horrible consequences in the long run. So we're encouraged by that. We encouraged by assurances on private worship, on religious materials that people would be allowed to possess, on the establishment of a human rights commission, and on efforts to rein in the religious police which had been the ones that have been involved in raids on what should be legal gatherings, religious gatherings. And so, yes, we continue to have these discussions and we do see progress.

QUESTION: So far as designating eight countries as being of particular concern --


QUESTION: -- is that intentionally ambiguous or is it just a synonym for the eight countries that provide the most concern? These are the worst, is that right?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yes, generally speaking, that is to be the connotation. The International Religious Freedom Act requires our Government every year to designate countries that need a threshold that's laid out in that legislation of severe violations of religious freedom. Now, one can argue over these and countries that are close to the line, one could say why this country and not another. But generally speaking, I think the point you make is a legitimate one; that they are to be regarded as the ones that are most restrictive on religious freedom. And the legislation places special emphasis on brutal treatment. It's not just legal restrictions. Sometimes those restrictions are not vigorously implemented and we take that into account. But the law stresses, you know, when we see countries that have a significant number of religious prisoners or where people are physically suffering for their faith that really draws our attention.

QUESTION: There is no explicit sentence that I could find that says, today, having completed this year but ended June 30th, we again find these eight countries to be -- in other words, in each case you recited it was designated last November.


QUESTION: Since so-and-so, it's been -- you know what I mean? But there's no -- I didn't miss anything -- again, these are the eight -- you're saying, again, these are the eight countries?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, no. Every year in our report, since the reporting year ends at the end of June every year, that gives us the chance to then compile the information until early in September, when we generally announce it. We're always referring back to, in this last year, these were, in this case, the eight CPC countries. We will be announcing, just within a few weeks, what the list is for this year and we are required to do that every year.

QUESTION: What is this year?


QUESTION: Because that year ended June 30.


QUESTION: The report we're dealing with today ends June 30?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yeah, the cycle for the report is specific in terms of when -- what the year needs to be for our compiling information. But the CPCs can be rolled out at any time during the year and -- you know, there's been a case or two in the past where our announcement of those have coincided with our rolling out of the report. This year, we're going to take a few more weeks and be back in touch with you at that time.

MR. CASEY: Let's go over here.

QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, you've mentioned the caricatures against Prophet Mohammed that show that you have to go beyond protecting freedom rights. What do you make of the Pope's remarks on Islam? They fueled a lot of anger and criticism in the Muslim world. And some people there tied them with the President's -- what the President has called Islamo-facism. What do you make of these remarks?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: I have not read the Pope's remarks and I need to sit down, get a copy of them, and read them. And so I'm not in a position to comment on them and I'm not even sure, after I've read them, if I'm the one who should comment on them. I think those questions need to go to the Vatican. I understand that a spokesman for the Vatican has indicated that there was no desire at all to be offense with these remarks.

In terms of the President's remarks, in a case where he would make a remark like that, I think he's concerned about those who would hijack the religion of Islam for violent purposes. And I think that's all that is intended. He's made many, many comments that recognize the peaceful nature of the vast majority of Muslims in the practice of their faith and in their understanding of their faith.

QUESTION: Yeah, just to get clear on the report, at least the executive summaries that came out, because it's broken into two parts; one takes the eight that were of particular concern --


QUESTION: -- in the last report and documents what's been done in those countries. And then there's --


QUESTION: -- the list of the full 20 of significant interest. Presumably, that's the list of 20, the (inaudible) in there. Those are still of significant interest --


QUESTION: -- now. And presumably then, the next blacklist is going to be drawn from some combination of those, because --

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, the executive summary is something we try to do to just help people get a grasp on what this issue is about without having to read the whole report. I've been asked if anyone reads the whole report, and I actually talked to someone this week who has read it every year. He's the only person I've ever found that has done that. And so --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, he's not, but to his great credit he worked on Capitol Hill and was involved in passing the legislation. And you don't find many people who feel a personal responsibility to follow up and keep track of how the legislation is implemented. I really admire that.

But -- so the Executive Summary is simply provided to help the reader. And we wanted to give some sense of accountability for what actions our government takes, and we chose to focus in particular on the eight CPC countries. But the truth of the matter is as you look at the individual country reports, you'll see actions mentioned of a wide variety and of great vigor. As I said, literally hundreds of our officers are involved in this. And I'm, frankly, as someone who used to work on Capitol Hill, very, very impressed at how seriously the State Department takes this issue as well as other human rights and how much time and energy go into going out and meeting with religious groups at some risks sometimes, collating all this material, and then meeting with government officials to raise their concerns.

The list of 20 countries are ones that we just felt gave a good overview of some of the dynamics that constitute this past year of religious freedom issues in the world. Yes, I think generally speaking they reflect some of the more serious violators of religious freedom. I think it's fair to say that if we add any countries this year, probably they'll come from that list.

QUESTION: Are you saying -- sorry if I'm interrupting -- that there are other countries that are -- that fall in this category of significant interest that which are not on this list of 20?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Sure. I mean there are certainly other countries. We work on lots and lots of countries all the time and, you know, sometimes there'll be one serious case in a country that will take weeks or months of our time to get someone released from prison or, you know, a mosque has been burned down or something. That country might not make the list because the government in general is not suppressing religious freedom. But no, there are many other countries where there have been significant problems of religious freedom other than just those 20.

QUESTION: The Secretary is waiving sanctions against Saudi Arabia. Is this enough reason to remove it from the list of the CPC?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: No, not necessarily. The International Religious Freedom Act requires us to take action when a country is designated a CPC, a country of particular concern. But the legislation gives a number of options because the goal here is to promote religious freedom. That certainly is my heart, and I can tell you it's the Secretary's heart to find that solution or that approach, which best advances the goal.

In Vietnam, for example, we did not impose sanctions. We worked out an exchange of letters to address the problems, and Vietnam has turned the corner and made enormous progress on religious freedom. There are still problems there, but I think our approach of not imposing sanctions and of working out a mutual understanding, which we then have been able to work together -- I've been there five times -- to implement has born itself out and proven itself.

The case of Saudi Arabia, you could say we've taken a similar approach. We've spent a great deal of time talking out a number of the issues. Some of the issues that would concern us about religious freedom are so endemic to the society and to its role as it views its place within in Islam that these sorts of issues are not going to change in the near future. But the sorts of issues that we have focused on are ones that I think are of particular concern to Americans, such as the dissemination of hate literature. And we are very encouraged by the position of the Saudi Government and by the responsiveness as well as by a number of statements that have been made by King Abdallah 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. How quickly remains to be seen.

MR. CASEY: Let's go back here.

QUESTION: Yes, could you say something about the trends you're observing in China and in Laos? I know they're very different situations, but there have been changes.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, in China one -- China is a CPC country, as you know, has been since 1999 and still very restrictive on religious practice. I think one could argue that over the last couple of decades, the general trend has been to allow greater religious freedom, especially for the state recognized bodies -- religious bodies. And I think most religious believers in the country would acknowledge that. However, in the last two or three years we've seen a number of setback and sometimes very harsh treatment, surprisingly so, for minority faiths or for faiths that are not accepted by the government.

And I can tell you that we raise this issue over and over. President Bush feels passionately about this and has raised this issue at the highest levels and has raised it when he has traveled there and spoken out on it. There was a new regulation on religious affairs that was promulgated in 2004. It seemed to open the door maybe for some previously unregistered groups to be registered, and also the idea that house gatherings of friends and family would be fine. You can even find this on a Chinese website stating this is the case. But repeatedly we find problems here where the government continues to raid these sorts of meetings in some cases, and arrest people and throw them in jail. We've also received assurances -- I have, on my travel there -- about the freedom of children to be able to receive religious education as basic as this seems to us as Americans. This is a very critical issue. And you'll find, for example, among Uighur Muslims that mothers can be arrested and thrown in jail for extensive periods of time simply for training their children in their faith. And we find Sunday school teachers in Catholic and Protestant settings are sometimes arrested as well.

So it's been a disappointing time where the general tend has stalled over the last two or three years, and the Catholic Church has had great difficulty in trying to move forward to receive recognition. There seem to be some progress earlier this year, but then a setback over the appointment of certain bishops. Of course, the Buddhists are famous for their -- for being suppressed in Tibet, and the hostility toward the Dalai Lama continues and the government's interference in choosing its own Panchen Lama, rather than accepting the Lama, the Panchen Lama chosen through normal Buddhists means. So --

QUESTION: And in Laos.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: And Laos. Laos is a country that saw remarkable improvement about three or four years ago. And I've traveled there and have seen the fruit of that and I give credit here, a lot of credit to my predecessor in this job, the Ambassador Bob Sipel, who served under President Clinton, just did a great job in working in Laos, and it's been my privilege to follow up on that.

Laos moved away from some of the same sort of problems that we had to address in Vietnam; forced renunciations of faith, wholesale closing down of places of worship, arrest of a number of people. They moved away from these serious problems a few years ago.

This year, unfortunately, we've seen a little bit of movement back in that direction, some forced renunciations of faith. There are five religious prisoners, I believe, at the present time. In Laos, there are a couple of locations where there is a hostility particularly towards Christians; Savannakhet Province, for example. And so this has had to become a greater country of concern for us at this time.

MR. CASEY: We've got time for a couple more. Mr. Lambros, Kirit, and Sylvie, you get the last one.

QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, did you note the same (inaudible) in religious freedom in Turkey, specifically vis-Ã -vis to the opening of the Theological School of Halki, of the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in Istanbul under the auspices of the ecumenical Patriarch of Bartholomew?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: I'm disappointed to say that we continually raise the Halki Seminary. I certainly have in meeting after meeting, as have our Ambassador and others. And we've been disappointed that there has not been any progress on this. This is frustrating because I think just in a matter of days, the seminary could be up and running. There are people that take care of it. And I think quickly, students and professors could be on the scene. And so we are frustrated that this has continued to be the case. And of course, the patriarchy is restricted still to citizens only of Turkey, and this continues to pose a problem as well since there are only 2,500 of those. But I can assure you that these are issues that we are raising.

QUESTION: One more. In recent (inaudible) with the Turkish Government of (inaudible) regarding this issue and some others like the protection of properties, belonging to the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in Instanbul -- some of them, Mr. Ambassador, which has been confiscated by Ankara even most recently.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: We're aware of these too. I do not have an intimate familiarity with property by property, but again, these are issues that we are raising.

MR. CASEY: Kirit.

QUESTION: If I can ask a very broad question, could you give us your assessment as to whether the religious freedom worldwide has increased or declined over the past year?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, if you look at the beginning of the Executive Summary in our report, you'll find what I believe is a very encouraging statistic. And that is -- I drew from Freedom House's report when they delineated countries that are free, partly free, or not free. And when you look at the trends over the last 30 years or so, there are only 44 countries that were considered free in 1972, the first year they issued these ratings, whereas this last year, there were 89. The number of not-free countries has fallen from 68 in 1972 to 45, today. So I think generally speaking, this trend would be reflected for religious freedom as well.

In the communist world, in general, we see a gradual easing of religious persecution. There are serious exceptions to this, North Korea being the most blatant, where things are horribly restrictive and oppressive. But I've given the example of Vietnam, where we've seen a real significant change just in two years, three years time and we've seen a more gradual change in some other countries.

There is a rise of fundamentalism in many religious contexts around the world. This is not restricted to one religion. And these followers of this approach to various faiths have increasingly taken efforts, either to create sectarian violence and attack people of other faiths or to try to take over their governments or work through their governments, to bring about change that would pass laws highly restrictive on other religions. And so that is a general trend that we see as well throughout -- in certain corners of the Muslim world, the Hindu world and the Buddhist world.

MR. CASEY: Sylvie, last question.

QUESTION: The report speaks about improvement in Sudan. How can you speak about improvement, since, for what we know from here, the situation has worsened on the ground?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, you're certainly right that the situation has worsened, and represents about the greatest humanitarian tragedy in the world today when we look at Darfur. That, strictly speaking, is not a religious freedom issue. This is a case where Muslims are imposing atrocities upon other Muslims.

Where we see improvement is in the area that all of us anguished over for so many years during the civil war in Sudan between the north and the south. And here, we have to give credit that fortunately, the Peace Accords are holding, and especially in the 10 southern states we're seeing a great deal of religious freedom that was threatened in the past. Christians are also represented in the Vice Presidency and in the cabinet level of the government and there have been a number of Christians who are now serving in the National Assembly and the Council of State. Some property that was confiscated by the previous government has been returned, although there are still many claims to be settled.

But the Government of National Unity has -- it has, I think, been faithful in general to its commitments to honor religious freedom in the south. And there are more pronounced problems in the north, particularly in Khartoum, where Sharia Law can be imposed upon -- or is imposed a time upon everyone, including the 200,000 Christians and animist who live in that country.

Under the agreement for peace, non-Muslims in Khartoum are supposed to be exempt from penalties prescribed by Sharia, but not from national and state laws based on Sharia. And so there's still a vulnerability there.

MR. CASEY: Thank you, everybody.


Released on September 15, 2006


© Scoop Media

World Headlines


North Korea: NZ Denounces Missile Test

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has denounced North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test. The test, which took place this morning, is North Korea’s third test flight of an inter-continental ballistic missile. More>>


Gordon Campbell: Zimbabwe - Meet The New Bosses

At 75, Mnangagwa is not exactly what you’d call a new broom. As many observers have pointed out, his track record has been one of unswerving dedication to Mugabe ever since the days of anti-colonial insurgency... To these guys, things had to change in Zimbabwe, so that things could remain the same. More>>