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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor > Releases > Remarks > 2002 > October - December

Hearing on the 2002 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom

John V. Hanford III, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
Testimony Before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights
Washington, DC
October 9, 2002

Madam Chair and Members of the Subcommittee, let me begin by thanking you for holding this hearing on the 2002 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. Members of this Committee have led the way in shining light on the persecution endured by religious believers around the world, and this hearing serves an important role in that process. I want to express to each of you here today my appreciation and gratitude for your commitment to religious freedom.

It is my privilege and honor to serve our President, the American people, and courageous men and women of faith around the world, as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. As I begin my tenure, I look forward to working very closely with you, and I thank you for your invitation to appear before you today. Prior to serving in my present capacity, I worked on these issues for 14 years in the office of Senator Richard Lugar. It is wonderful to be back on the Hill and to focus together on this issue that is so vital to the well being and freedom of every human being and, indeed, to the well-being and freedom of our nation and the world.

I am pleased and honored to present you with the fourth Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. This Report reflects, in tangible form, our compassion as a nation for religious believers abroad who suffer for their faith and our determination as a people to confront and alleviate that suffering. Before I focus my remarks on worldwide religious persecution and what we can do to address it, I would like to say a word about how the Report is produced, and to thank those who have invested tremendous time and effort into its compilation.

The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom
The International Religious Freedom Act created both the office which I lead and the requirement to report annually on religious freedom worldwide and our efforts to promote that freedom. Accordingly, my office actively monitors the status of the issue worldwide on a daily basis. This work includes seeking out government officials, religious leaders, human rights groups and NGOs, and believers from many religious traditions, both here and abroad. We draw on a great volume of press and NGO reporting, as well as on the work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. We rely significantly on the fact gathering, analysis, and investigation of abuses by our U.S. Embassies around the world. My staff has traveled to many of the countries in which religious liberty is at risk. I myself have recently returned from China and Vietnam.

The IRF report is the product of information from all these sources. It is drafted in the first instance by our Embassies and Consulates around the world. Their drafts are then compiled and edited, in close consultation with my staff and the country desks, by the Office of Country Reports and Asylum Affairs in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. All of these individuals deserve great commendation for their work, which collectively exposes the dark recesses of religious persecution abroad.

This year’s report covers 192 countries during the period from July 1, 2001 through June 30, 2002. The Introduction sets forth the vital importance of religious freedom not only to Americans but also for the world. The Executive Summary highlights categories, causes and trends in religious freedom issues and summarizes U.S. efforts to deal with abuses. In accordance with the IRF Act, it also identifies countries in which there have been significant improvements in religious freedom. It is a sobering commentary that the only country meeting the standard of significant improvement this year is Afghanistan, and that is due only to the expulsion of the Taliban. The Taliban was identified last October by Secretary Powell as a particularly severe violator of religious freedom.

While the situation in Afghanistan has dramatically improved, especially for Shi’a, Hindus and Sikhs, the issue of religious freedom in the new Afghanistan is still being worked out, like other elements of the Afghan constitution. As Secretary Powell said recently when addressing the Afghan Reconstruction Steering Group, "we must provide resources and expertise to help the new human rights, judicial and constitutional commissions lay the groundwork for a vibrant civil society, the rule of law, accountability and transparent government."

The Report on International Religious Freedom concludes by providing as a resource the relevant international instruments, and by providing an overview of US religious freedom policy relating to such areas as immigration and refugees and training of Foreign Service Officers.

The Status of Religious Freedom
Now I would like to turn to the substance of the problem itself, and to sketch a brief overview of the status of religious freedom around the world. The International Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1998, noted that "more than one-half the world’s population lives under regimes that severely restrict or prohibit the freedom of their citizens to study, believe, observe, and freely practice the religious faith of their choice."

When I began my work on religious freedom issues in 1987, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc were among the worst persecutors. Now, as some of those nations have splintered into others and new governments have emerged, there are both great new freedoms and the ugly legacy of years of repression, sometimes carried on by the very individuals who suffered under the old regimes. As I look over the world in 2002, in some countries repression has waned, but in others it has only waxed stronger. I am sad to observe that some of the faces may have changed, but the scourge of religious persecution has persisted.

Let me touch briefly on the major causes as we see them today. These causes are loosely grouped, and may overlap in many nations, but they are useful categories in understanding the problem. In essence, the contexts are many, but religious persecution usually finds its genesis where the quest for power sweeps aside as irrelevant the precious worth and dignity of each individual human being.

First, we find religious oppression in nations dominated by totalitarian or authoritarian governments such as North Korea and Burma. Why do such nations perceive religion as a threat to their authority? In part because religious believers swear allegiance to a higher authority, and because these courageous men and women know that the right of religious freedom cannot be given or abrogated by human government. Rather than reaping the benefits to their societies of peaceful religious practice by their citizens, repressive governments choose to treat religion as a threat to their control, and persecution is the inevitable result.

We find in this category the rulers of Communist regimes, including China, Vietnam, Cuba and Laos, who all persist in their efforts to control and manipulate religious groups. Vietnam, for example, keeps many religious figures under detention or house arrest, or in prison. China continues to imprison many Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, underground Catholic bishops and priests, and Protestant "house church" pastors.

Secondly, when a particular religion is strongly associated with the identity of a national group, minority religions can be perceived as threats. This phenomenon has led to tragic sectarian violence in India, where in March the death of some sixty Hindu pilgrims in a train fire while the train was under attack from Muslims sparked massive Hindu rioting that left upwards of 1,000 Muslims dead. In other countries, the association of nationhood and religion has led to severe legal codes like the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which in turn have led to mob attacks against minorities such as the Ahmadis. There have also been a series of horrific and cowardly attacks on Christians. Just a few weeks ago, I was working with some of you to ensure the relocation, freedom and safety of a young man, Ayub Masih, who endured 6 years of prison and repeated threats against his life because of false accusations based on this law.

In Russia, perceived threats to the religious identity of the nation have placed significant obstacles in the path of that country’s attempts to achieve religious freedom. We find the same unfortunate phenomenon in many of the surrounding nations and former Soviet Republics.

Third, some governments use religion more directly to establish and maintain their legitimacy, which can mean that minority religions are treated as threats. This is true of some Muslim governments such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan. In these nations, freedom of religion usually means freedom only to practice or turn to the majority religion. The conversion to a minority religion has in some instances been met even by death.

Fourth, governments may use genuine security threats to justify tarring an entire religious group with the brush of subversion. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, for instance, have dealt with security threats indiscriminately, detaining and abusing many innocent people who happen to engage in religious observances or associations similar to those of suspected terrorists.

Fifth, a similar dynamic has emerged which must be described as discrimination rather than persecution, but which is rooted in the same impulse of disproportionate response to a just concern. In the last several years, we have traced a trend across Europe, where a legitimate public concern with violent cults has led to "anti-cult" measures that are problematic and discriminatory in themselves but far more troublesome when used as a model by other, less democratic countries.

In France, sweeping "anti-cult" legislation passed last year. To the credit of the French legal system, thus far those who have sought to use that law against religious practitioners have met with failure. I have also been heartened both by the willing dialogue on this issue that I have personally encountered, and by recent statements of the French delegation to the OSCE concerning the mandate of a government commission and the list of so-called cults it promulgated. Yet the law itself remains problematic not only because of the threat the language carries in France, but because it is even now being considered for emulation by countries that lack France’s commitment to rule of law and human rights. Such a model serves only too well as cover for those nations who persecute under the guise of law enforcement.

Finally, religion-based terrorism by non-governmental actors, though often with ties to rogue regimes, is emerging as a major cause of religious persecution. Terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda are growing in number. These groups define their goals in religious terms, and view human beings as mere obstacles to violent instatement of tyranny under the guise of religion. They not only seek to destroy adherents of other religions, but have a special animus towards co-religionists who reject their methods or goals.

Countering Religious Persecution
These are some of the ugly realities of religious persecution around the world. We must ask ourselves, then, not whether we are to address them, but how.

As principal advisor to the President and the Secretary on this issue, my job is to assist in developing and implementing U.S. policy to counter religious persecution. As you know, the President is deeply committed to the cause of religious liberty. Thanks in significant part to the International Religious Freedom Act, we have in place numerous mechanisms to address the tragedies of religious repression.

Among these, of course, is the first step of monitoring the problems and establishing the facts, which is what brings us all together today. We have sought, through this Report, to establish a baseline of factual information about the status of persecution in countries and regions across the world. One of the purposes, you may recall, of creating the Report, was to ensure that across the world, US Embassies are addressing, researching, and raising religious freedom violations. The requirement to compile this Report has led our Embassies to extend their expertise on this issue and their networks of contacts with religious and community leaders and NGO’s far beyond what they were even a few years ago. The fortunate result is that all over the world, the U.S. is now raising this issue with other governments, and, in our own government, facts and decisions about religious freedom issues are being considered at the highest levels.

The Report is an essential first step, but it is not an end in itself. It is to serve both as a catalyst and a reflection of what we must do. Short-term, we must have rapid and effective responses to the crises that arise. Longer-term, these cases serve to press the underlying policy issues that give rise to the problems in the first place. It is my desire to work very closely with Congress and with NGO’s to ensure that we do all we can together to address and ultimately prevent the tragedies that befall men and women of faith at the hands of repressive governments.

Among the long-term measures encouraged by IRFA is the establishment of programs developing legal protections of religious freedoms, scholarly exchanges and various means of promoting religious freedom and tolerance. Where religious freedom flourishes, democracy thrives as well. And where democracy grows, there is peace and prosperity. Our nation’s founders believed that religious freedom was a cornerstone of democracy. In our post-September 11 world, this understanding has never been more vital to our security. Earlier this year, on Religious Freedom Day, President Bush reaffirmed this:

Religious freedom is a cornerstone of our Republic, a core principle of our Constitution and a fundamental human right…. Today, as America wages a war against terrorism, our resolve to defend religious freedom remains as strong as ever.

In short, where religious tolerance and freedom are present, violence in the name of religion will not find a footing. In the words of John Foster Dulles,

United States foreign policy rests on two propositions: We want peace, liberty and well being for ourselves; and we cannot be sure of peace, liberty or well being unless other nations also have them.

It is thus in our national interest to persuade other governments to join us in promoting and protecting religious freedom, as this right is so interdependent with other basic human rights and democratic convictions. This work of persuasion is my task and privilege, and it is two-fold. First, it includes direct discussions and negotiations with foreign governments who violate religious freedom. As I mentioned, I recently returned from China and Vietnam, where I had the opportunity to cover and press a host of concerns, and I will continue to do this in nations around the world where religious freedom is threatened. My visit to China was received with a level of attention which I directly attribute to the message of strong support for religious freedom that the President conveyed to the Chinese people and leadership during his visits to China last fall and early this year.

Secondly, the work of persuasion includes helping other like-minded nations to understand the critical importance of promoting religious freedom. This part of my task includes both bilateral contacts and the active use of multilateral fora such as the OSCE and the UN Commission on Human Rights. It is in the interests of persecuted religious believers to have as many nations as possible raising their plight, and I have already begun discussions with counterparts in other nations, in the hope of furthering that goal.  

As you are aware, yet another tool established by IRFA is the required designation of "countries of particular concern." These countries are those which meet the threshold of engaging in or tolerating "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; prolonged detention without charges; causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or other flagrant denial of the life, liberty or the security of persons." These designations were established to ensure that the worst abusers of religious freedom would receive the scrutiny and action warranted by their abuses. Sadly, as in years past, there continue to be a number of contenders for this title.

 While I can assure you the designation process is well underway for this year, I also want to emphasize that we are constantly reviewing the status of international religious freedom with regard to the CPC process, which is not meant to be restricted to an annual event. The CPC designations carry significant weight, and they feature prominently in the discussions I have with other governments. If and when a designation is warranted, IRFA grants authority to make it at any time.

In conclusion, let me say once again how profoundly privileged I feel to be here today to represent before you the needs and the suffering of so many noble men and women around the world.

I also feel privileged in this work because I know I stand with so many people of good will. They are Members of Congress, such as many in this room, who have worked long and hard to make this issue a priority in our foreign policy. They are Foreign Service Officers, who meet in the dark of night to help believers in harm’s way. They are members of my staff at the Office of International Religious Freedom -- men and women who are devoting their professional lives to the cause of religious freedom for all. And they are, of course, our President and Secretary of State, who care deeply about religious liberty.

But, at the end of the day, all of us who care about this issue are privileged because we stand with the persecuted. We stand with the millions of men and women around the world who yearn simply for the freedom to practice their religious beliefs without fear of government coercion or reprisal.

This report is for them. I believe it gives them hope. Indeed, we hear from them sometimes, and they tell us it gives them hope. At the very least, it communicates to the persecuted, and to their tormentors, that we will not forget them, and that we will never abandon their cause.

Thank you, Madam Chair and members of the Subcommittee for being here today, and for your commitment to religious freedom.

Released on October 10, 2002

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