(CNSNews.com) - A statutory body that advises the administration on international religious freedom issues pressed the State Department Thursday to impose sanctions against a group of countries where the right to worship freely is restricted.
In doing so, the U.S. will show the eight countries that it takes the issue of religious freedom seriously, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Chairwoman Felice Gaer said during a hearing of the House International Relations Committee.
The commission was set up under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which provides for the State Department to designate as "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) nations with especially egregious records on religious freedom.
The current list comprises Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan, a newcomer added last month. At the same time, Vietnam was removed from the list - a move Gaer called disappointing on Thursday.
"There are problems [in Vietnam] and they remain," Gaer told the hearing. "This was too soon."
"Forced renunciations of faith continue in some areas, and in the last year, the commission has received credible information that a dozen new arrests have been made and prominent leaders remain under house arrest," she said. "Even those recently released remain under intense government surveillance."
But the State Department defended the decision, citing "progress" it said Hanoi had made in the area of religious freedom.
"Vietnam no longer meets the legal criteria set out in the International Religious Freedom Act, so was not designated a CPC this year," Stephen Liston, director of the department's office of religious freedom, told committee vice-chairman, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).
"Today, the government of Vietnam can no longer be identified as a severe violator of religious freedom, marking the first time that a country has made sufficient progress as a result of diplomatic engagement to be removed from the CPC list," he said.
Liston said removal from the list did not mean conditions of religious freedom had been fully achieved.
"But the government of Vietnam has addressed the central issues that constituted severe violations of religious freedom, and the decision not to re-designate Vietnam is an important signal that our purpose is to improve conditions for religious believers - and that we will recognize progress when it occurs," he added.
'All citizens must be Muslims'
Turning to other countries among the 197 the department assesses in its annual report, Liston said that in many cases "we are pleased to be able to document efforts by governments to protect religious freedom."
"In others, we hope that, when the report brings to light abuses, this will spur governments to uphold their international commitments to provide for full freedom of religion," Liston said.
"Although we make every effort to work with governments to advance religious freedom, a number of countries not only fall far short of international standards but demonstrate little improvement," he added.
Saudi Arabia is another country that has long exercised the USCIRF. It first asked for the kingdom to be designated a CPC in 2001, but the State Department only complied in 2004, despite its own annual assessment that "freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia.
Gaer said Thursday that Saudi authorities had in the past "made statements regarding religious freedom reforms but did not act on them."
The commission urged the State Department to "continue to press the Saudi government on the specific steps that it will take to implement these policies and report publicly to Congress every 120 days on what the Saudis have done or not done in that regard."
In his testimony, Liston reported that religious freedom in the kingdom "is not really recognized as a right, nor is it protected for either citizens or guest workers."
"All citizens must be Muslims, and basic religious freedoms are limited to all but those who adhere to the state sanctioned version of Sunni Islam," Liston said.
But, he added, "we are seeing indications that the Saudi government takes seriously the issue of increasing religious freedom as part of its broader efforts to combat extremism."
Gaer commended the State Department for including Uzbekistan on the CPC list this year and said the commission would like to see both Pakistan and Turkmenistan similarly designated.
"We find the exclusion of Turkmenistan especially disturbing," she said. "They have continued to escape the CPC designation so clearly earned.
"Turkmenistan, among the most repressive states in the world today, allows virtually no independent religious activity. Severe government restrictions that effectively leave most, if not all, religious activity under strict and often arbitrary-state control," Gaer said.
But Liston said of Turkmenistan: "We don't think it rises to the level of a CPC."
The Central Asian republic's dictatorial ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov, died unexpectedly early Thursday.
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