While the Obama administration made two big moves on persecution this week—appointing an ambassador for international religious freedom and releasing the State Department’s religious freedom report—two Republican lawmakers said more work remains to be done.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, criticized President Barack Obama for taking so long to act. “The president had not designated Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) since August 2011, an annual requirement under the law,” Royce said in a statement.
The congressman also challenged the “glaring omission” of Vietnam from the State Department’s updated list of CPCs. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on July 28 that Turkmenistan was the only new country on the list, which already included Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan.
In May 2013, Royce introduced House Resolution 218, calling for the State Department to redesignate Vietnam because of its egregious human rights abuses, especially in regard to religious freedom. Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2014 that prisoner abuse and torture were common and crackdowns on unsanctioned religious groups were sometimes violent. In 2013, Vietnam also enacted a new law making it harder for Christian churches to become legal.
International Christian Concern (ICC) supports Royce’s efforts. “It is tragic that it would require an act of Congress for the State Department to take this step, but it is abundantly clear that Vietnam has little respect for religious freedom and continues to repress religious minorities on a considerable scale,” said Isaac Six, ICC’s advocacy director. Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Kazakhstan, and Sri Lanka also warrant CPC designation, according to ICC.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) monitors worldwide abuse of religious freedom and makes annual recommendations of CPCs to the State Department. USCIRF also found “disappointing omissions” from this year’s list, including Pakistan.
But ICC and USCIRF officials are excited by Rabbi David Saperstein’s nomination as ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. The position, which leads the State Department’s Office of International Freedom, had been vacant since October.
“He is knowledgeable and passionate about these issues, and served as USCIRF’s first chair after the commission was established,” current USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett said in a statement. “We look forward to working closely with Rabbi Saperstein and deepening our cooperation with the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.”
Following the State Department’s release of the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called for an amendment to the Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that would create stronger designations and sanctions.
“By amending the International Religious Freedom Act, this legislation encourages the administration to take a firmer stance on religious freedom violators and codifies America’s commitment to advancing religious freedom as a key objective of U.S. foreign policy,” Rubio said in his statement.
Six also said Rubio’s bill was badly needed: “Since the International Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1998, the United States has almost never taken any kind of concrete action against nations that are egregious violators of religious liberty. The State Department’s annual report is all bark and no bite.”