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11/19/05

US House Panel Probes Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan


Absence of countries on list of worst offenders in State's report questioned

By Jeffrey Thomas
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- A congressional hearing examined the State Department's annual report on religious freedom November 15, questioning the absence of the Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan from the list of the worst violators.

The State Department released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2005 November 8. The report - the seventh in the annual series -- examines religious freedom in 197 countries and what the United States is doing to improve the conditions for this central human right. The report is mandated by the U.S. Congress under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).  (See related article.)

No country in Europe or Eurasia is listed in the report as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) -- the category reserved for the worst offenders that engage in or tolerate gross infringements of religious freedom.

The 2005 report lists eight countries as CPCs: Burma, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), Eritrea, Iran, the People's Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam. The panel of witnesses at the hearing November 15 agreed these countries were gross violators of religious freedom and urged greater U.S. efforts on behalf of those who are suffering for their faith.

Although Uzbekistan was not on that list, it was cited in the report for ongoing serious abuses of religious freedom.

The report cited Turkmenistan as one of two Eurasian countries (along with Georgia) in which the conditions for religious freedom have continued to improve over the past year. (See related article.)

CONCERNS RAISED OVER REPORT'S TREATMENT OF UZBEKISTAN, TURKMENISTAN

At the hearing, Committee Chairman Christopher Smith said he considers Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to be among those countries "where the rights of believers are seriously threatened."

John Hanford, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, testified first at the hearing, providing the committee with a summary of the report.

The United States continues to engage a number of additional countries on serious violations of religious freedom, he said, citing Uzbekistan as an example. After recounting some of the mistreatment and abuses in Uzbekistan, he added: "We are continuing engagement with the government to encourage respect for religious freedom for all groups."

Hanford also noted "positive developments" in Turkmenistan, including the release of a number of political prisoners and the first-ever roundtable involving government officials with representatives of religious minorities. "Nevertheless, serious problems remain," he said.

Hanford said the report is "always going to miss things and we always welcome criticism - and try to respond to those criticisms."

"We're there to be a 'gold standard' on the facts," he said of the annual report.

He wanted to make clear, he said, "that we are in final CPC negotiations on one or two fronts. We anticipate making an additional CPC announcement in the near future."

U.S. COMMISSION ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM WEIGHS IN

Michael Cromartie, the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the commission stands by its recent call for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to be ranked among the worst offenders against religious freedom in the world. (See related article.)

The commission also was established by IRFA.  The law charges the commission with monitoring the status of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief globally and making recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress as to how the U.S. government better can protect and promote religious freedom and related human rights in its relations with other countries.

"The omission of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from the CPC list is particularly troubling and a discredit to Congress's intent in passing IRFA," said Cromartie.

"Turkmenistan, among the most repressive states in the world today, allows virtually no independent religious activity," he continued. "The government of Uzbekistan places strict restrictions on religious practice and continues to crack down harshly on individuals and groups that operate outside of government-controlled religious organizations."

"The ambassador-at-large [John Hanford] and the State Department have for years attempted to engage the governments of these two countries in an effort to seek improvements.  However, the response has been extremely limited.  In the face of the severe religious freedom violations perpetrated by the Turkmen and Uzbek governments, the continued failure to name them as CPCs undermines the spirit and letter of IRFA."

Cromartie took particular issue with the annual report on Turkmenistan containing the  "startling claim that the status of religious freedom improved during the period covered by this report. Even more disturbing is that Turkmenistan is listed in the Executive Summary as one of the countries which has seen significant improvements in the promotion of religious freedom."

"This conclusion is regarded as erroneous not only by the commission but by most human rights organizations and other observers of Turkmenistan," he said.

A coalition of nine human-rights groups submitted a joint statement supporting Cromartie's concerns, calling the evidence of severe and widespread violations of religious freedom in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan "overwhelming," and providing detailed criticism of the annual reports on the two countries.

Another witness, Lawrence Uzzell from the nongovernmental organization International Religious Freedom Watch, added his voice to the criticism of the sections on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Uzzell suggested that U.S. diplomats "fall into the trap of paying too little attention to indigenous minorities, even if those minorities may be suffering harsher repression than American missions and missionaries."

The problem is not, Uzzell said, that the report has too many references to such U.S.-based groups as the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses. "The problem is that the report gives too little attention to other groups."

The prepared statements of all the witnesses at the hearing as well as a webcast of the hearing itself are available at the Web site of the House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations.

The full text of the 2005 report and previous reports are available on the State Department Web site.

Excerpts of the 2005 report are also available in Russian.

For more information, see International Religious Freedom.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)


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