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The new persecutors

International | SPECIAL REPORT: Many countries outlaw minority religions and jail their adherents. Yet somehow they manage to avoid the stigma of appearing on the U.S. government's official list of religious persecutors. But this year religious-freedom advocates are pushing Washington to stop giving a free pass to five of the worst violators. The State Department may finally be listening

Issue: "John Kerry: On a roll," Feb. 14, 2004

FORMALLY DOCUMENTING religious persecution across 191 countries is no small task. The vast State Department bureaucracy certainly has the manpower to do it, but nonetheless missed by three months the scheduled release date for its 2003 report.

But the tardy paperwork would be worth it, religious-freedom advocates say, if five more countries were added to an exclusive list of the world's fiercest persecutors: Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, Eritrea, and Uzbekistan.

The dubious distinction carries the possibility of economic sanctions or severed U.S. aid-and the certainty of an uncomfortable international spotlight. According to the law, those designated as "countries of particular concern" have tolerated "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom."

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In recent years the religious-freedom gauge has taken a higher profile because persecuting countries tend to become breeding grounds for terrorism. Three of six countries named as persecutors by the State Department last year-Iran, Iraq, and North Korea-also were designated by President Bush as the "axis of evil."

Now lawmakers and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) are pushing the State Department to add the five new persecutors to this year's list, and a State Department official confirmed that each is under consideration.

The final list, which is probably still a few months away, must win approval by the president and will have to survive bureaucratic wrangling and diplomatic pressure. But five years after Congress passed (and President Clinton signed) a law promoting international religious freedom, commission members and analysts wonder why State isn't naming more offending countries to the list-or acting more forcefully against those already on it.

"We've seen some movement on some of these countries," allowed Tad Stahnke, the USCIRF's deputy policy director. "The commission is looking forward to seeing more."

The commission is an independent federal agency created by the 1998 law to critique State's annual religious-freedom reports and make policy recommendations independent of the bureaucracy. The current slate of commissioners includes one Hindu, one Buddhist, one Muslim, one Jew, one Mormon, and four Christians. By law the White House appoints three commissioners and Congress appoints six (two from the party in the White House, four from the party out of executive power). Each year commission members send an official letter to the secretary of state, recommending countries that State should identify as persecutors. In five years State Department officials have acted on only about half the names on the list.

The State Department has also declined to punish even the chosen ones, allowing existing trade sanctions (as in the case of Iraq and North Korea) to work double-time for religious-freedom abuses. That hasn't been enough, said Mr. Stahnke. For violators like China, which enjoys normal trade relations with the United States, the designation has become a meaningless slap on the wrist.

Of the five under consideration for this year's State Department "countries of particular concern" list, the likeliest to be fingered are Turkmenistan and Vietnam, said Nina Shea, director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and a member of USCIRF. Communist Vietnam has been jailing and persecuting its highland Hmong Christians with growing intensity for the last two years. Turkmenistan forbids all religions except state-scrutinized Islam, and its president requires all schools to teach a self-idolizing tome on Turkmen history.

Saudi Arabia, which has been an annual contender since the list of persecutors began in 1999, will probably receive another pass. Each year realpolitik trumps religious freedom. The State Department also keeps track of oil imports, and Saudi oil accounts for 20 percent of U.S. crude imports. Saudi Arabia is also the biggest export market in the Middle East for the United States. And the Saudis have been cooperating in the war against terror, particularly after May terrorist bombings last year struck home in Riyadh.

Little has improved on the religious-freedom front, however. The state allows only its strict interpretation of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. Shiite Muslims, Christians, and other minorities may not worship in public. Sharing other religions with Muslims is illegal. Muslims who convert to other religions risk the death penalty. Until now Saudi influence in Washington has translated into U.S. acquiescence over the country's religious-freedom record.

"It's only been in the last year that our government has really started pressing them on this," a State Department official said. "The Saudis have fervent defenders in this department. But there are others in the department who are frustrated at Saudi Arabia's intolerance and are taking a fresh look at our countries' relations. People are really starting to see a connection between religious intolerance and terrorism."

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