International Religious Freedom Report
Remarks on Release of 2008 International Religious Freedom Report
John V. Hanford III, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom
September 19, 2008
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, thank you, Madame Secretary, for your remarks. It’s been a great pleasure to serve a Secretary of State and a President who have done so much to advance international religious freedom. I am deeply appreciative of your efforts, and so too are the countless men and women who suffer for their faith around the world -- they know the United States is a friend of the persecuted and a strong ally in the cause of freedom.
As we release the 2008 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom today, we commemorate the anniversaries of two landmark documents in the global human rights effort. Ten years ago the U.S. Congress unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Actwhich, as President Bush recently stated, “builds on a tradition that defined our nation” and “placed religious liberty where it belongs -- at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” Sixty years ago, in 1948, the United Nations issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been hailed as the Magna Carta for all humanity. Among its many achievements, the Universal Declaration enshrined in Article 18 the internal right to believe, the external right to worship and share, and the individual right to choose one’s faith without fear of government intervention or harm.
Religious freedom, then, is both an American ideal and a universal aspiration. Our promotion of this human right is grounded both in national interest and international norms. Over the past decade the International Religious Freedom Acthas enabled our government to intensify its efforts to expand freedom for religious belief and practice and to combat attempts to erode and undermine that right.
The passage of the Act provided new tools for the U.S. Government to encourage adherence to international commitments, condemn violations, and foster greater respect for religious freedom as the birthright for all humanity. Chief among these tools is theAnnual Report on International Religious Freedom.
The annual report we release today demonstrates the cooperation between scores of State Department officers at embassies and consulates around the world and here in Washington, all of whom have worked tirelessly to compile what is the world’s most comprehensive document on religious freedom conditions. I especially want to express what an honor it is to work with the very dedicated team of public servants in the Office of International Religious Freedom. The successes we have seen over the past few years are a testament to their diligence, talent, and commitment.
While it is our diplomats who do the writing and editing, we could not produce this massive volume, covering 198 countries and territories, without the invaluable contribution of religious groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human dignity. The ongoing support and leadership of the U.S. Congress is also deeply appreciated. In a very real sense the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom is an extension of support from the American people to those who silently struggle for their religious rights all over the world.
The annual report highlights both the admirable protections and the unjust violations of religious freedom. Our focus is on government policies and actions, but we also highlight societal attitudes and abuses. In every instance we strive for accuracy and fairness with sensitivity to the complexity of religious issues. In exposing injustice, this report lights a candle -- an 800-page candle -- that we trust will encourage justice and greater respect for the rights of religious believers across the globe. Sadly, there are still too many governments that do not allow for the full enjoyment of this most basic human right.
North Korea remains among the world’s most egregious violators of religious freedom. The cult of personality surrounding the ruling family remains an important ideological underpinning of the regime, at times resembling tenets of a state religion. Some foreigners who have visited the country observed that services at state-authorized churches appeared stages -- staged, sermons contained political content supportive of the regime, and congregations arrived and left together on tour buses. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 persons are believed to be held in political prison camps in remote areas, some for religious reasons. Prison conditions are harsh, and refugees and defectors who have been imprisoned stated that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs generally were treated worse than other inmates. The U.S. Government remains very concerned about the atrocious religious freedom conditions in the country and we urge the regime to respect the rights of its people.
During the reporting period, the Government of Eritrea continued its race to the bottom with its abysmal record of abuses – arresting, detaining, torturing, even killing some of its citizens for merely attempting to worship outside one of the four government-approved religions.
In India, despite the central government’s efforts to foster communal harmony, we’ve seen more violence against Christians in the state of Orissa where religious factors combined with underlying social, economic, and ethnic grievances have sparked unrest, just in the past few weeks. This violence has left at least 19 dead, 91 injured, approximately 24,000 homeless and hundreds of homes and religious institutions destroyed. We are also concerned about the killing of a prominent Hindu religious leader that sparked the recent unrest in the state. We’ve also seen violence against Christians in the state of Karnataka this past week, some of which appears to have been politically motivated, especially since some of it was carried out by the police. We urge all parties to refrain from violence and urge government officials to protect religious freedom throughout India and thus, preserve India’s long-standing tradition of religious tolerance.
When President Bush visited China during the Olympics, he emphasized the message of religious freedom. The President attended a Beijing church service, where he said “no state, man or woman, should fear the influence of religion.” I also travelled to China recently to continue discussions on religious freedom with Chinese officials. And we’re pleased by the statements of high-level figures, including President Hu Jintao, who emphasized the role that religious believers can play in promoting a “harmonious society.” We remain concerned, however, about the temporary closure of Protestant churches in Beijing during the Olympics and the continuing requirement that churches affiliate with the state-recognized Protestant church in order to operate legally. We’re also concerned about limitations on the Hajj and prohibitions on peaceful expressions of faith during Ramadan. We believe that increased restrictions on Buddhist practice in Tibet were contributing factors in the unrest in March of this year.
In September 2007, the Burmese military regime violently suppressed peaceful prodemocracy demonstrations led by courageous Buddhist monks and ordinary citizens. Security forces raided, and, in some cases, destroyed Buddhist monasteries in response to the demonstrations.
The Iranian regime continued to harass and persecute non-Shi’a religious groups -- most significantly among the Baha'is -- but Sufi Muslims, some Christian groups, and members of the Jewish community also suffered. We are particularly concerned at the present time about the fate awaiting two Christians from Muslim backgrounds who were officially charged with apostasy last week by the Public and Revolutionary Court in Shiraz, Iran.
Concerns have arisen elsewhere in the Middle East. In Egypt, courts ruled that the constitution's guarantee of religious freedom does not apply to Baha'i citizens and that its provision for the freedom to convert is restricted to non-Muslims. The Government again this year failed to redress laws and governmental practices that discriminate against the Christian minority in the granting of permits to build and repair church complexes The Egyptian Government also detained some converts from Islam to Christianity and some religious freedom advocates, intimidating them so that they ceased advocacy upon their release.
There were also problems in Algeria and Jordan, which have traditionally been more respectful of minority faiths. In Algeria, there were claims of Governmental restrictions on worship, including the arrest and sentencing of converts to Christianity, and the ordered closure of churches as the Government began enforcing Ordinance 06-03, passed in 2006, which increased restrictions on non-Muslim religious practice. In Jordan, a Shari'a Court found a convert from Islam to Christianity guilty of apostasy, annulled his marriage, and declared him to be without any religious identity. The Jordanian Government also harassed individuals and organizations based on religious affiliation.
In Indonesia, we were disappointed by the Government's issuance of a decree in June that restricts the ability of Ahmadiyyas to practice their faith freely. In Central Asia, in contrast to their traditionally open approaches to religious freedom, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan are each considering problematic changes to their religion laws that would place significant restrictions on this right. However, all three have requested technical assistance from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is a positive signal, and we encourage them to implement fully the OSCE's recommendations.
The United States advocates religious freedom for all faiths, which means we take a leading role in defending the religious freedom of Muslims around the world. However, it is because of this commitment that we take issue with efforts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference and its members like Pakistan and Egypt, in promoting the problematic concept of defamation of religions at the United Nations. As Secretary Rice mentioned a moment ago, this flawed concept seeks to weaken the freedoms of religion and expression by restricting the rights of individuals to share their views or criticize religions; in particular, Islam. The OIC's approach to defamation of religions is inconsistent with international human rights law, and is an attempt to export the blasphemy laws found in several OIC countries to the international level.
Religion is a central organizing principle for many societies, including our own, and the United States works constantly to promote religious tolerance. However, restricting the rights of individuals will not achieve this goal. Considering the division in the international community over the defamation concept, I echo Secretary Rice’s call for the need to work together on a new course that promotes religious tolerance, while honoring international standards and respecting human rights.
As an example of a very positive approach, we were encouraged by a recent initiative in Jordan, under the patronage of King Abdullah, the Jordanian Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought hosted a conference where 138 Muslim leaders, clerics, and scholars issued an open letter to Christians worldwide, calling for interfaith dialogue to be based on love of God and neighbor.
Similarly, the Government of Saudi Arabia organized an intra-faith conference in Mecca to promote unity amongst various Islamic sects. As a follow-up, King Abdullah, along with King Juan Carlos of Spain, convened an inter-faith conference in Madrid that included prominent religious figures from Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths. The Saudi initiative represents an important contribution to efforts to advance religious tolerance, but the inclusion of the defamation of religions concept could undermine these efforts.
Also noteworthy are the efforts of the Philippines at the United Nations to promote interreligious understanding through the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace and their annual General Assembly resolutions on interfaith dialogue. We are hopeful these efforts will close the gap of misunderstanding and intolerance between different faiths and move away from the contentious defamation approach.
Other nations have made important improvements on religious freedom. Vietnam, for instance, continues to deepen its implementation of a legal framework on religion that bans forced renunciations of faith, encourages faith-based charitable work, and provides a path to official registration. Just in the past year, the Government of Vietnam has granted national recognition or registration to six Protestant denominations, the Baha’i Faith, the Pure Land Buddhist sect, and two indigenous religious groups. In Turkmenistan, while more work remains, we were pleased that the government promotion of the Ruhnama has decreased, religious groups were registered, and the UN Special Rapporteur on religious freedom recently visited. The Government of South Korea announced the introduction of alternative service for religious or conscientious objectors, and we encourage the National Assembly to pass this legislation.
As we mark both a decade of vigorous work under the International Religious Freedom Act and six decades of international commitment to universal human rights, inspired by the Universal Declaration, we must do so with a solemn awareness of the work that remains. Hundreds of millions of persons are still denied the right to believe, practice, and worship freely The United States will continue steadfastly to pursue the protection and promotion of religious rights for all people everywhere. As we do so, we will draw strength from knowing that we are joined in this cause by many other nations and by countless men and women across the globe who refuse to be silenced by the intimidation and violence of persecutors.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in his 1974 Nobel Prize lecture, “The simple step of a simple courageous man is to not partake in falsehood, to not support false actions. One word of truth outweighs the world.”
Solzhenitsyn died last month after a life spent championing justice and freedom and his legacy lives on. Courageous advocates like Solzhenitsyn who speak truth to power are a continual inspiration for all of us who work to advance human rights. As we release the 2008Annual Report, we symbolically join hands with them, and with millions around the world who simply yearn to be free to worship and to live out their beliefs in peace and without fear of persecution. In another ten years, let us hope that we’ll be able to celebrate even greater progress toward a world in which religious freedom flourishes and in which the repression of religious practice is rare.
And I’ll be happy to answer questions at this time.
QUESTION: May I ask about what has prompted your criticism this year, in particular, of the OIC? Is there some move afoot -- current move afoot right now for those defamations of – defamation of religion concept?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, what I’m – what I’m expressing is a position that the U.S. has had for some time. The fact is that the OIC has been pushing the notion of the defamation of religions concept through the UN system for some time. Originally, they did this in 1999, for example, when this was first introduced. The concept was only about the defamation of Islam.
But is there something right now that’s going on? Maybe I
have a really bad memory, but I don’t remember it ever
being the subject of Secretary Albright or Powell or Rice
comments before. Is it just because you guys have finally
noticed, because you now have an ambassador to the OIC?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: No. This has been on our radar screen and we’ve been addressing it at the UN and voting against it. I’m encouraged to say that there is an increasingly large number of countries that are joining with us. This last time the resolution passed with just a plurality with many more votes either abstaining or against. While the chapeau, or the title, has changed now to address defamation of religions in general, when you look at the language of these resolutions, Islam is the only religion that’s explicitly addressed. And what we fear is that this is an effort which ultimately is exporting anti-blasphemy laws that you find in countries like Pakistan to the international level. And indeed, there have been cases in certain countries where people have been sentenced for apostasy or blasphemy that draw upon this precedent from a resolution that passed at the UN.
QUESTION: In the General Assembly?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: It’s in the General Assembly and also at the Human Rights.
QUESTION: Right. Well, you’re not in the Human Rights, I mean, this administration had made a big deal out of not being a part of that.
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right.
QUESTION: So – I forgot what I was going to say. Oh, would you be – would you have no concern or of less concern, if it included – if it actually mentioned other religions?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: No. The problem is that it essentially is placing a sort of chilling effect upon the freedom of people to discuss their beliefs openly, to be critical openly. And while we encourage respectful discourse, at the same time, we don’t want to see freedom of speech and expression suppressed in this sort of a sweeping way.
QUESTION: Right. But is there, again – this is my last one. Is there some new push that the OIC is making in the UN or anywhere else to get this?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: The OIC has been coming forward with this resolution, I think, pretty much every year since 1999. We are encouraged that they may be moving away from this approach. At a June 2008 conference in Malaysia, the OIC secretary general suggested focusing on discrimination against Muslims and incitement to hatred, rather than defamation, which can be defined very broadly, as it often is in Muslim countries, where people are rounded up, sometimes under false accusations, for having said something negative. When you look at a country like Pakistan, the penalty for saying one word or innuendo against Mohammad is the death penalty, and against the Koran is life in prison. And so you have a number of people who languish on death row, waiting for their case to be appealed again and again and again. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has never carried it out. But all the other courts have tried to.
QUESTION: You mentioned problems in Algeria and Jordan, which have traditionally been more respectful.
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right.
QUESTION: Why is that happening? Is it the spread -- the grassroots level of Islamic fundamentalist thought is having an impact and the governments feel they have to respond to that? They feel less secure?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: I think that – yeah, I think that’s probably a – generally an appropriate analysis of it. Now, it is true that in the case of Algeria, this ordinance was passed a couple of years ago but now is being implemented. And so, things are cracking down a little more. And we’re particularly surprised in Jordan, where there’s been historically so much tolerance that we’ve seen some people detained and a greater sense of aggressiveness toward minority faiths.
QUESTION: And you – you say that you see some slight improvement in religious freedom and you quote a few things. Is it a trend or it’s just coincidence or if it’s a trend, what do you attribute it to?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: We hope it’s a trend. The improvements that we see involve fewer importation and travel restrictions, permission to repair buildings. I know from having traveled there myself that this, for, you know, 15 or 20 years, has been a huge problem. And also, significant increases in church attendance and religious activity, which the government seems to be allowing, and even fewer restrictions on politically sensitive expression. Some Catholic parishes have offered prayers for political prisoners. So this is a positive trend that we encourage.
QUESTION: But on the government side, is the government more tolerant than it used to be?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: I think it’s tolerant in the sense that it’s not locking up people for doing this sort of thing in the way that might have – it might have been more tempted to do in the past. Unlike in the past and previous years when we stood up here and reported, there’s an organization called Ladies in White – Damas de Blanco – who are composed of the relatives and supporters of political prisoners. And they’ve been able to gather without interference, without government interference, at a church in Havana. So all of these are positive signs.
QUESTION: And going back to Islam, the fact that countries like Jordan, which have been so tolerant, are taking this harsher line -- do you also see a trend? Are all these Islamic countries more afraid of the fundamentalists or the – how do you explain this?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, we hope that this is just a temporary change. Jordan has really been the model for religious tolerance in the Arab world for years. There were a number of expulsions this past year of religious workers who – some of whom had been there for many, many, many years. One of them involved a family that had attended – the daughter had attended Princeton with my wife and had won the contest in Jordan as the best Arabic speaker in the entire school system. And she was an American. And yet, her family been there for so long; they were being expelled. Fortunately, that decision was reversed, but others were not.
And so that and just increased harassment concern us. We’ve spoken about this with the Jordanian Government and we hope the trend will not continue.
QUESTION: Ambassador Hanford, do you have to report any progress on the reopening of Halki Theological School and the respect of property rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul, Turkey, which have been oppressed by the Turkish Government?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, I can assure you that we have raised and continue to raise these issues. I have personally raised them with the Ambassador to Turkey. Our embassy continues to urge the Government of Turkey to address these issues, to permit the opening of the Halki Seminary, to further expand religious freedom in general. And as I think you know, President Bush has raised this with Prime Minister Erdogan.
The government has repeatedly promised to reopen the seminary, but this has not yet happened. Of course, we also raise the problems on the patriarchate and the fact that the government has not been willing to recognize the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch as the leader of the worldwide orthodox community and, obviously, this significantly hinders his ability to do the work that he feels called to.
We also, at the same time, raise broader issues: eliminating the religious affiliation on national identity cards is something that we’re urging. Some progress has been made, I would argue, in the passage of a new foundations law this year. And we’re eager to see more implementation of this. And this is what, obviously, is needed to facilitate the return of properties.
QUESTION: Ambassador Hanford, when was the last time you raised this issue to the Turkish Government on the highest level?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, I’ve raised it with the Ambassador, and that was during this reporting year. Our report addresses what we’ve done in the past year. We also raised additional issues with him, including – there was the brutal slaying of some Christians, including a German citizen. Obviously, this is something the government had nothing to do with, and we are watching carefully as the court system addresses this.
QUESTION: One more question, may I go to Albania for a second, Ambassador?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Did you have the chance personally to watch and report any aspect of religious freedom and property rights of the Greek community in northern Epyrus and Albania, which most recently are under a systematic attack by the Albanian Government?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right. I have not met with the Government of Albania on these issues, but we’re aware of them. Obviously, our government raises them. I don’t have an answer for you right now that would provide clear guidance on where that’s likely to go.
QUESTION: Thank you.
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: And can you give us some more information about the former Soviet states? I see Uzbekistan is under CPC.
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right.
QUESTION: So do you have any information about Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia or Azerbaijan?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, in the case of Uzbekistan, we’ve had extensive discussions over the last year. I’ve traveled there twice, and we’ve been covering a broad array of issues which I’m hopeful that we might be in a position to make some positive statements on. The registration laws place restrictions on many minority faiths that have resulted in people being arrested for the peaceful practice of their faith, including a Baptist pastor who was – who’s being sentenced now to 15 years, I think, in jail for – under extremism charges. And we remain concerned about a number of Muslim citizens who are suspected of extremist activity. Uzbekistan does face extremist and terrorist elements and of course we understand that and are supportive of reasonable efforts to address this. But as we have discussed at great length with them, we feel that there are some people who have been arrested, perhaps, under suspicion of this but who are innocent, and we’re encouraging a facilitation of this being resolved.
QUESTION: So what --
QUESTION: I’m sorry, can I just follow up?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yeah.
QUESTION: I mean, I mean just – Georgia, Ukraine, you know –
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: All the – the case of Georgia --
QUESTION: Armenia, do you have anything to say?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, don’t have time to cover all of them. In the case of Georgia, I would say the last few years we’ve seen improvements there as conditions have – the government has – there was a renegade priest who was carrying an awful lot of sway and under his leadership, minority faiths were coming under attack and, in some cases, severely. And fortunately, this has been addressed.
QUESTION: In the case of Tibet, now, even after the Olympics, we see the monks getting arrested and tortured and, in fact, Tibet is really locked down and (inaudible). And so with your talks with the Government of (inaudible) China, I’m sure you find it very encouraging because a lot of things were promised. But do you think it’s really translating into religious freedom inside Tibet the way it is – the way the situation is right now?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, I’ve been to China twice in the last 10 or 12 weeks, and we’ve certainly raised these issues very prominently. The first of those trips was with Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor David Kramer. And we held the Human Rights Dialogue, which we resume this year with China. And it was a very productive time of frank discussions of issues, and the Tibetan issues were very, very prominent in what we discussed. We expressed concern about the fact that Buddhists loyal to the Dalai Lama continue to be treated, in many cases, harshly, and the government continues to state very harsh and critical things against the Dalai Lama. We believe that overall restrictions on religious freedom were a major factor in the March riots of this year, which lead to the loss both of Han and Tibetan lives, both in the Tibetan autonomous region and in other regions – Tibetan regions of the country.
What we’ve urged is that the government cease interfering in recognizing and training lamas. We feel that this is – this should be the prerogative of religious leaders, not of a government. And I’ve made the point that the communist party of China forbids its members and leaders from having any religious belief. And so there’s an irony in the fact that the communist government and party takes upon itself the prerogative of choosing religious leaders such as lamas.
We’ve also encouraged that the patriotic, political education campaigns in which nuns and monks are forced to study communist texts and to denounce the Dalai Lama -- that these need to cease. And also, there’s a great deal of restriction on the ability of monks and nuns to travel. They have to receive government permission to do that. And this has traditionally been a part of their training to travel from monastery to monastery. We’re -- and we’re certainly that there are a number of monks and nuns who are missing from Tibetan monasteries and nunneries.
QUESTION: Yeah. The Vietnamese Government has been refusing to return church property to a Catholic parish in Hanoi.
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right.
QUESTION: There have been huge demonstrations around this issue.
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right.
QUESTION: And the police have recently begun attacking reporters who were covering it. I’m wondering, doesn’t this conflict with the image of progress in that country?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, this is an issue that we’ve raised all along. And in my five trips and numerous meetings with Vietnamese officials, we’ve raised the return of church properties. It’s an interesting thing and work on religious freedom that this issue of return of properties is so complicated. I find it to be true throughout the old Soviet Union, in Russia, in Vietnam, in China -- it’s a big issue. And for reasons that we can be somewhat sympathetic with, and other reasons with which we’re not sympathetic.
One of the problems occurs when property has changed hands several times. Or in the case of a prominent piece of property, I think, in Vietnam, that property had previously belonged to Buddhists before – I think with French help it became Catholic, so it becomes very complicated. I want to believe the governments’ assurances that they’re trying to sort these things out. It has moved in a very frustrating way.
Let me say that the reason why we felt that Vietnam deserved to be removed from the CPC list was that we saw a sort of change in Vietnam over the last few years that, in my experience, has been almost unparalleled in a two- or three-year period with a sitting government. And so where – when I started in this position, you had forced renunciations of faith by the tens of thousands being forced, particularly upon Christians, in a couple regions of the country -- over a thousand places of worship shut down, dozens of religious prisoners. Now those policies have been reversed. New laws have been put into place. The government has registered – has not only reopened these places of worship in most cases, but they’ve begun to register many new religions that didn’t previously exist or exist legally. And so you’ve got – I think I mentioned Baha’is and various Protestant groups and Buddhist groups and others that have been registered. Problems remain – the UBCV, the Khmer Krom and others experience problems there.
I think – when I look at church – the return of religious properties, those sorts of issues -- if you look at the legal definition of what generally would place a country on the CPC list, those sorts of problems, that level of problem is not – is below the threshold. It’s harsh measures like torture and imprisonment and a wholesale closing of religion that generally would do that.
The trend in Vietnam is in a positive direction. It moves more slowly than we would like at time, particularly with the registration of the number of places of worship. But I’m convinced that the government, at high levels, has made decisions that they are granting a much greater freedom and space for religious believers of almost every religious group to practice their faith. And indeed, the Prime Minister traveled to meet with the Pope this year.
Yes, back in the back.
QUESTION: You have mentioned Algeria -- what about the other countries of the Maghreb?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Why don’t you give me or two in specific?
QUESTION: Like for instance, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania.
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yeah. You know, it’s really mixed from one country to another. And in some cases, the minority faiths are so small that the episodes of problems tend to be sporadic and it’s difficult sometimes to see a trend. But I mention Algeria, because in the past the minority faiths there had been largely tolerated and there does seem to be a step in the wrong direction there.
QUESTION: On North Korea, can you comment on any new findings or is there anything that stands out compared to last year?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, North Korea is a country where our report says religious freedom does not exist. It simply does not exist. I’m not sure that I could point to anything encouraging. It’s very hard to get information out of North Korea. We occasionally hear from defectors, and what we hear is not at all encouraging. The – you know, we speak out about this. We’ve done at the General Assembly. There used to be, essentially, no churches. There are now four state-controlled churches, but these are largely for show and so it’s hard to take any encouragement from that. And defectors even talk about the execution of underground religious believers, in some cases, when they are arrested.
I wish we had more accurate information. We try very hard to get information. This is the biggest challenge for our office in terms of understanding what’s going on and, frankly, in terms of addressing it. We don’t have diplomatic relations. We seek in other ways to try to call upon North Korea to grant a greater degree of religious freedom.
I lived in South Korea at one point, and just the contrast between the two countries is about as stark as you will find anyplace in the world.
QUESTION: You said – in Vietnam you thought the government had made a decision at the highest level to get more religious freedom.
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you think something like that has happened in Cuba or – you know, what’s behind the change there?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: The changes thus far -- while they’re quantifiable, they’re not categorical and there’s not a huge shift, but the trend is good. And so I think it’s a little too early. And I’m unable to speculate at what level or by whom these changes have been made.
QUESTION: Can I also ask – you said a few minutes ago on the OIC that – I think you said maybe in the last – your last attempt at the UN –
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- only a plurality voted for or –
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right.
QUESTION: -- maybe. When was that, or what was the resolution?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Sure. That was in March 2008. It was a resolution at the Human Rights Committee, and that was the first time that the number of non-yes votes outnumbered yes votes. I think that there’s been a sort of a patina of tolerance that people have associated with this idea of defamation because it sounds so positive. And in many ways we would agree about the need to be respectful towards all faiths, including Islam, and to exercise responsibility in the way that we address issues of any religion.
But I think as many countries are coming to understand the text of these resolutions more clearly, the votes are changing. And so, for example, in March you had 21 in favor and, of course, you’ve got this whole bloc of OIC countries. You had 10 against and 14 abstentions. But at the same time that this problem is happening with the defamation issue, we also find that the OIC is going after what is internationally regarded as core tenets of religious freedom and diluting these. And I’ll give you a couple of examples.
At the March session of the Human Rights Committee, the OIC successfully altered the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, so that now the tasking is to monitor individual speech for incidents of religious discrimination instead of protecting individual freedoms. And also, speaking through the Pakistani delegation at the December 2007 UN Human Rights Council Session, the block – the OIC block did not recognize the universal right of individuals to freely change their religion. And so these sorts of decisions and declarations and positions are going against the principles ensconced in, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights that I was citing in my remarks.
QUESTION: And what was the resolution in March of ’08?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: That was – that was the defamation resolution, the defamation against religions resolution which, in one form or another, is brought up again and again and again.
QUESTION: Since the OIC is based in Saudi Arabia, can the Saudi Government help you deal with the OIC and the concerns you have with them?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, we’re certainly raising this issue and --
QUESTION: With the Saudis, you’re raising it?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well -- and indeed, with the OIC in general.
QUESTION: Through your Ambassador?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Mm-hmm. We have a special envoy to the OIC who’s raising this, and a number of us are raising this in international fora, at the UN. And as I said, we, you know, we hope that the June 2008 conference in Malaysia that the OIC had suggests a little different direction that the OIC is taking on this. It’s not supported by internal law, and I think it’s important for the U.S. to continue its consistent voice against this approach.
QUESTION: Do you – can you say anything about the case of Hadial-Mutif in Saudi Arabia? He – and whether you’ve taken that up recently with the authorities there? He was arrested, apparently, at the age of 18 and is now 34 and is still in jail.
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yes. This is a heart-wrenching case. It certainly would be at the top of our list of cases that we would be concerned about in Saudi Arabia. He’s been in prison now for 13 years. During – he recently – a couple years ago – conducted a hunger strike. And he was imprisoned for insulting the prophet Mohammad, originally, but we’ve certainly raised this case prominently.
We have seen some improvements in Saudi Arabia. We have seen the release of some prisoners. We’ve certainly seen a decrease in problems with the religious police, the Mutaween. The raids that used to be conducted are occurring much less frequently now. The raids on non-Muslim places of worship occur very rarely now, which is a very encouraging trend. And you even find the press being allowed to speak openly in criticism of these sorts of raids or of excessive practices by the Mutaween.
There still are some Ismaili Shi’a prisoners, such as Hadi, and there are 17 others who were involved in the Najran riots in 2000 that still remain imprisoned. The government has given indications of some policies that they’re implementing that we take great encouragement from. And if these things are implemented, we will be saying in future years that they represent real improvements in religious freedom.
QUESTION: You said you raised the case – who raises it?
AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, we raise it at our embassy. I’ve raised these cases on my trips to Saudi Arabia. But this case is well-known to us and it’s one that we feel is really worthy of being dealt with.
Okay, well, thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.