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12/23/03 - RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT - 2003-12-23

Religious freedom is a universal right, recognized by international law and religious traditions the world over. But “millions of people in scores of countries do not enjoy this right,” says U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. He spoke on December 18th, as the State Department released its Fifth Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

“You will find in [the report],” said Mr. Armitage, “nations that use repressive and brutal means to control religious belief and religious practice. You’ll find others that are hostile to minority or ‘unapproved’ religions, or that tolerate and effectively encourage persecution or encourage discrimination. And you’ll find nations that have discriminatory legislation or policies that give preference to some religions over others.”

John Hanford is U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. He said that religious freedom “all too often remains fragile, neglected, and violated. Many religious believers find themselves forced to worship secretly instead of confidently, or to hold their sacred beliefs in fear and under threat rather than peace and security. Many others suffer severe hardships for their faith, including beatings, torture, detention, imprisonment, and death.”

Among the violations of religious freedom are attempts by totalitarian or authoritarian regimes to control all religious belief or practice. Mr. Hanford said these attempts “are manifest in countries such as North Korea, China, Vietnam, and Burma. North Korea, he said, is perhaps “the worst situation for religious freedom in the world.”

Another category, said Mr. Hanford, is countries where the government favors a dominant religion and is hostile toward non-approved religions. Such countries include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and Turkmenistan.

Mr. Hanford said that in countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, and Nigeria, there have been instances of state neglect or discrimination toward minority or non-approved religions. And other countries, such as Belarus and Russia, have discriminatory legislation or policies putting certain religions at a disadvantage.

The U.S. will continue to speak out against religious persecution, discrimination, and intolerance wherever they occur. As President George W. Bush put it, freedom of religion is “the first freedom of the human soul.”