Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
October 18, 2004
Frequently Asked Questions About the International Religious Freedom Report
Q: Why does the United States have a responsibility to publish an annual report on International Religious Freedom?
A: Religious freedom is a universally acknowledged right enshrined in numerous international covenants and declarations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Helsinki Accords, and others. When we advance religious freedom, we are simply urging other nations to join with us in upholding a high but universal standard. Respect for religious freedom and tolerance of the practices and beliefs of people of all faiths lie at the heart of the American identity and constitute one of main principles on which this country was founded. Our country was founded largely by people fleeing religious persecution in Europe, and the United States has continued to attract people from all over the world for this very reason. The United States has managed to resolve religious conflicts without resorting to sectarian violence. Moreover, we support the right of all countries to speak out when human rights, including religious freedom, are abused.
Q: Under what authority does the Department of State produce its annual report on International Religious Freedom and designate "countries of particular concern" (CPC)?
A: Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that established the Department of State's Office of International Religious Freedom headed by an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. The Act requires the preparation and transmittal to Congress of an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom detailing the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, violations of religious freedom by foreign governments, and United States' actions and policies in support of religious freedom. It also requires that each year the President designate each country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom as a "country of particular concern."
Q: What is the difference between the Department of State's Office of International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom?
A: Both the International Religious Freedom Office in the Department of State and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) were created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom serves ex oficio as a non-voting member of the Commission. The other nine members are appointed: three by the President, three by the Senate, and three by the House of Representatives. The Commission is charged with making non-binding policy recommendations to the President, The Secretary of State, and Congress with respect to matters involving international religious freedom. It too prepares an annual report, usually focused on those countries it deems to have "engaged in or tolerated violations of religious freedom." The State Department and Commission reports have different purposes. The State Department's report is a country-by-country analysis of religious freedom, detailing violations and improvements in religious freedom, as well as U.S. actions to promote religious freedom worldwide. The Secretary of State, acting on behalf of the President, designates "countries of particular concern." The Commission report covers fewer countries, but makes policy recommendations to the executive and legislative branches of government. The Commission report also critiques the work of the State Department in promoting international religious freedom.
Q: What does being designated a "country of particular concern" mean and how is it decided which countries to designate?
A: The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) requires an annual review of the status of religious freedom worldwide and the designation of countries that have "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom" during the reporting period. The IRFA defines particularly severe violations of religious freedom as systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons. In those cases where the Secretary of State designates a "country of particular concern," Congress is notified, and where non-economic policy options designed to bring about cessation of the particularly severe violations of religious freedom have reasonably been exhausted, an economic measure generally must be imposed.
Q: What are the currently designated "countries of particular concern"?
A: In September 2004, Burma, China, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam were designated "countries of particular concern."
Q: How does a country get removed from the CPC designation?
A: CPC designations terminate within 2 years of the effective date unless the government is redesignated in that period of time. A CPC designation may also be lifted upon certification to Congress that the foreign government has "ceased or taken verifiable steps to cease particularly severe violations of religious freedom."