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 You are in: Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs > Bureau of Public Affairs > Bureau of Public Affairs: Press Relations Office > Press Releases (Other) > 2005 > November
Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesman
Washington, DC
November 8, 2005

Ambassador John Hanford On the Department of State's Annual Report On International Religious Freedom

(2:30 p.m. EST)

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, thank you, Secretary Rice, for your remarks and for your strong commitment to international religious freedom. It is truly an honor to serve a Secretary and a President who have put freedom for all people at the forefront of our foreign policy and who have such a heart for religious freedom in particular.

The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom is first and foremost a reflection of the core conviction of millions of Americans that all people have the right to believe and worship as they choose without fear of persecution or government reprisal. It is a mandate of Congress under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. It reflects the leadership of the President and the Secretary on this issue and it is the result of the dedicated work by hundreds of Civil Service and Foreign Service employees, serving here in Washington and around the world.

This conviction, this passionate commitment, to the fundamental right of freedom of belief, is a principle which we know we share with people all over the world. It is enshrined powerfully in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the freedom to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

As President Bush put it earlier this year, "As the United States advances the cause of liberty, we remember that freedom is not America's gift to the world, but God's gift to each man and woman in this world. This truth drives our efforts to help people everywhere achieve freedom of religion."

The annual report plays a critical role in our effort to promote the universal right to religious freedom. First, the report helps us shine a light on injustice. This year, as in past years, our report documents the continuing and widespread abuse of religious freedom in many countries around the globe. Barriers to religious freedom vary widely. In some countries, they are the result of concerted action by oppressive regimes and their quest for control. In others, governments discriminate against or oppress minority or unapproved religions. And in many countries, governments fail in their obligation to protect people of minority faiths from a society that is discriminatory or hostile.

Even some of the most open societies in the world have limited freedom of religion in ways that are difficult to justify. It is the purpose of this report to encourage abroad, just as we do here in the United States, a careful and continual examination by every government and society as to whether each person's right to believe as he or she chooses is fully protected or unnecessarily limited.

The second role of this report is to help us monitor progress, which we found this year even in some of the most restricted places in the world. In many nations, this has been a good year for religious freedom. In Turkmenistan, where serious violations of religious freedom persist, we saw hopeful signs with the streamlining of registration procedures and the registration of a number of new religious groups. Last year, the government substantially revamped laws regulating religious activities. They decriminalized violations of religious policies. They released all religious prisoners. And just recently, the government conducted a first-ever roundtable with representatives of religious minorities to begin addressing their concerns.

In Qatar, the new constitution that just came into effect explicitly provides for freedom of worship and guarantees the right of association and assembly in accordance with the law.

In the United Arab Emirates, government officials took the lead in encouraging moderation, showing respect for minority religions and fostering understanding among faiths.

In India, the new government has taken important steps to improve the religious freedom situation and the state of Tamil Nadu took a very positive step by repealing its anti-conversion law.

In Pakistan, while serious religious freedom problems remain, the government has maintained its public calls for religious tolerance and has taken some important and positive steps on this issue. These include revising the implementation of blasphemy laws and Hudood Ordinances to curb abuses, attempting to curb sectarian violence and encouraging reform of the public education curriculum designed to end the teaching of religious intolerance.

In a number of countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and China, we've seen important releases of religious prisoners.

In Kuwait, the Government has allowed Shia Muslims from India to worship freely.

Finally, on Vietnam, we remain concerned about a number of problems, including prisoners and continuing implementation problems at the local level and the lack of normalized relations with several religious groups. However, this year, Vietnam has made some very significant efforts to improve religious freedom. We have been particularly encouraged by the promulgation of new laws governing religious activities and efforts to ensure their implementation. The government released 14 prominent prisoners and has facilitated registration and reopening of some of the churches, which had previously been closed in the Central Highlands. We are also very pleased that our work together has resulted in an agreement to expand religious freedom in Vietnam, the first such agreement signed under the International Religious Freedom Act.

Despite this progress in these and other countries, the fact remains that this year's report continues to document tragic and widespread abuses of religious freedom by governments around the world. It is on the basis of this report that we speak out on behalf of those suffering for their beliefs. And it is in this report -- it is this report that helps us focus on countries where government repression is at its worst.

Today, we are announcing the re-designation of eight "Countries of Particular Concern." Some of these countries have not been willing to engage in any meaningful way on religious matters. Burma, Iran and North Korea fall into this category, as does Eritrea. In September, the Secretary approved a sanction against Eritrea because the government has refused to reverse its abuses of religious freedom or to respond in any significant way to our efforts at engagement.

Other "Countries of Particular Concern" had been more open. I've already mentioned Vietnam's efforts. China and Saudi Arabia have also demonstrated a willingness to engage with us to improve religious freedom. And with the signing of the Peace Accord, there is now hope -- there's reason to hope -- that we might see progress in Sudan.

Although we are not designating any new "Countries of Particular Concern" at this time, the International Religious Freedom Act provides for making such designations at any time during the year. Presently, we are in the late stages of our discussions with one or two potential "Countries of Particular Concern" and we may have an announcement to make in the near future.

In addition to serving as a basis for designating "Countries of Particular Concern," our annual report, combined with our continual monitoring throughout the year, helps highlight other countries where there are troubling violations of religious freedom. Uzbekistan is one such country. Uzbekistan's law on religion is in violation of international norms and conventions and is used against both Muslims and Christians. While the Government of Uzbekistan took important steps in 2004 to address torture and to establish police accountability, many of the most serious abuses occurred in pretrial detention, where physical mistreatment is widespread.

In thousands of cases, authorities have asserted membership in banned political organizations that encourage terrorism, based solely on outward expression by Muslims of their devout beliefs. The government has also made false assertions of membership in extremist organizations as a pretext for oppressing the innocent expression of religious belief. Many more thousands of Muslim believers live in fear that their religious activities alone may provoke suspicion or even arrest by government authorities. U.S. officials have repeatedly pressed the Government of Uzbekistan to allow more freedom of religious expression and to revise its laws on religion.

Let me offer several more examples of countries where we are focusing our efforts.

In India, the United States revoked the visa of a senior state level official on religious freedom grounds. And U.S. officials sought reversal of discriminatory laws while encouraging better understanding among Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist communities.

In Egypt, senior U.S. Government officials have raised our concerns about discrimination against Christians and other groups, and U.S. programs and activities support a wide range of initiatives related to religious freedom.

And in Iraq, U.S. officials at all levels, including the Secretary of State and members of Congress, the Ambassador and Embassy officers, have regularly engaged the governmental problems related to freedom of religion and the Embassy has undertaken a number of activities to promote religious understanding and tolerance.

Now, these are just a small sampling of our efforts over the past year on behalf of religious freedom. The report documents the full range of our efforts in each of the countries covered.

Our ongoing commitment to religious freedom leads us continually to expand these efforts. Ensuring greater religious freedom means demanding changes in laws that are oppressive or discriminatory, it means insisting on better enforcement of laws by governmental officials, it means devoting energy and resources to promoting greater understanding of the importance of this universal value, and it means pressing for the release of religious prisoners and coming to the aid of victims of abuse.

As a central part of the President's freedom agenda, all of these efforts are about one thing: making life secure and free from fear and harassment for individual people of faith around the world. Eleanor Roosevelt, a great champion of human rights, never lost sight of this focus on the individual. When asked where human rights begin, she answered: "In small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world, yet they are the world of the individual person."

There is no right more central to the world of the individual person than religious freedom. For all our many differences around the world, each of us holds certain beliefs dear and we all understand intuitively that we have the right to express them, especially through the practice of our faith. Societies that achieve respect for the freedom of religion have laid one of the cornerstones of democracy: the rule of law and respect for the individual. That is why we work so hard on this report and why I'm pleased to present it to you today.

Before I take questions, let me say a quick word of thanks to all those who have worked so diligently to make this report happen: first, to the staff of the Office of International Religious Freedom, which took over full responsibility for editing and producing this report for the first time this year; also, to our colleagues in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, who provided so much support; and finally, to our colleagues and regional bureaus and embassies around the world who worked so diligently to collect, report and verify the information contained in this report all throughout the year.

And now, I'd be happy to take your questions.

MR. ERELI: If I could ask that you identify yourself and your news organization when you ask your questions.

QUESTION: Luis Martinez, ABC News. This report was finished almost months ago, I believe, back in early September. Why has it taken so long for it to be released and were there any amendments made to it since its earlier completion date?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, you're right. The report was substantially finished back then. There have been no amendments, other than a typo here or there, that have been made to the report. It is a long process getting this out the door. We take it very seriously. It's important to get it right. We review it over and over and over again.

And my main concern is always to do that which advances religious freedom the most. That's always what is weighing on my heart. And so when it comes to getting the report right and getting the CPC designations all worked out, this is what always motivates us. Sometimes we find that even in the latter stages, right before we roll out the report, we're able to negotiate with countries. We utilize this opportunity every year and we've had time -- cases in which we have seen prisoners released or even laws changed at this juncture. That's the way I try to work the process each year.

QUESTION: Does that mean that some countries then were relegated to different levels because of those ongoing negotiations?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, we don't have levels so much, but we have worked with certain countries in light of what is in the report, in light of our CPC considerations, and we're continuing to do that. And as I mentioned, we may have an announcement to make soon about an additional country or two.


QUESTION: Can you talk about the Saudi progress or the lack of Saudi progress that keeps them on the list a second year?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: I sure can. Saudi Arabia is on the list because, you know, our report says famously that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia. All citizens are required to be Muslims. Public worship by non-Muslims is prohibited, though thankfully it is largely tolerated. There is great discrimination against Shia Muslims and there are a number who are in prison and this can lead to arrest and even torture.

There is also great discrimination against non-Muslims; religious items are confiscated, clergy are not allowed to visit. And then there's the problem of hate ideology materials which have been promulgated and sponsored in part by the government, even here in the United States, which are taught by some imams in Saudi Arabia and which have been taught by Saudi-sponsored imams in other countries.

Now, the Saudis have made significant progress on some of these fronts. For example, they have fired a number of imams that are guilty of this, although we still are troubled by some of the things that we hear that come from these mosques. They are committing to us to deal with the literature problem where there are hateful messages in Saudi-sponsored literature against minority religions and against other Muslims other than the Salafi school or Wahabi school of Islam.

King Abdallah deserves credit for making important steps towards promoting dialogue, especially with the Shia minority in his country, which constitute, I believe, about 10 percent of the populace. He has now completed the fourth session of what's called the national dialogue and he and the Grand Mufti are calling for moderation. Also the government has decided this year that Saudi judges are going to base their rulings on all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The Mutawwa’in, the religious police, are kept largely under control from raiding private worship groups, although there are important exceptions to this when people are arrested. There have been several groups arrested this year, unfortunately.

So it's a complicated situation but Saudi Arabia continues to face a number of problems here. We are engaging with the Saudis now in a strategic dialogue between our two countries. We'll be covering many different issues: political, economic, as well as human rights.

QUESTION: Can you still say that religious freedom does not exist in Saudi Arabia a year later?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yes. The report this year, you'll see, still says that. And I should clarify that we say this, for example, in the case of North Korea. It means something very different there. In the case of Saudi Arabia, on the law books, on the books, it really doesn't exist -- virtually nothing is tolerated. In practice, we are pleased that they allow, on any given week, hundreds of thousands of people, privately, to meet and to worship. There are important exceptions to this and we hope that those exceptions will disappear.

QUESTION: Libby Leist from NBC News. In the case of Iran and North Korea, how can the U.S. effectively apply pressure to those countries to change their ways when, you know, we don't have diplomatic ties with those nations?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right. Well, we continue to find ways to interact on these issues. As you know, there's a Special Envoy that's been appointed to work on human rights issues concerning North Korea, and religious freedom will be very, very prominent in that country. North Korea, as I mentioned, is a very different situation from Saudi Arabia, where you may have two Protestant churches that have been opened in the last 20 years but they're largely show churches and citizens are largely prohibited from attending.

It's a tough uphill climb, certainly one of the greatest challenges that I feel in my work. We try our best to get accurate information and that can often be very challenging. I personally have seen work in Iran sometimes succeed where people who are respectful of minority religions are willing to intervene and protect the right of minority faiths to not be imprisoned or executed, but there's always that risk.

There are, in many of these countries, people coming from different perspectives, some that are more aggressive and some that are more tolerant.

QUESTION: I'm from Radio Farda. Don't you believe that there is a conflict between religious freedom and misuing of this freedom by some governments such as Iran and what do you think about that?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, certainly, the way Iran uses religion, we would not view as religious freedom because of the level of intolerance. Religious freedom should look like what we see described in the UN Declaration of Human Rights or the ICCPR. And so there should be complete tolerance, as we have in the United States, for people to worship according to the dictates of their own heart.

One of the things that I take great joy in is running into so many Muslim Americans who say that they have more freedom to practice their faith in America than they ever had in their Muslim country. And so we encourage this sort of a model of respecting people as long as their intentions are peaceful to be able to meet, constitute places of worship, elect their own leadership and not be under severe surveillance and worship according to their own hearts.

MR. ERELI: Yes, ma'am, in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible.) Many Korean American missionaries kidnapped by North Korea -- they are all U.S. citizens -- they are, you know, still in prison. Does the United States have any action to press North Korea to get them out?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Excuse me. You're saying there are American missionaries who are in prison?

QUESTION: Korean-American, which they are all U.S. citizens.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Who are in prison?




AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Okay. We work various channels through our dialogue with North Korea. The six-party talks -- there are many issues that are on the table right now. Certainly, human rights is a very serious one and religious freedom is a very serious one.

We have received reports, particularly from people that have crossed over the border, of what some people are experiencing in North Korea and some of these reports are chilling, in terms of arrest and torture and imprisonment, large numbers of people of faith in prison camps in North Korea.

I'm not prepared to comment on individuals at this point, but this is one of the greatest concerns we have is we hope for a North Korea in the not too distant future which honors all human rights. This is a passion that you sense on Capitol Hill, of course, and it is the passion of this President and this Secretary. We're pleased there are a number of other countries that are joining with us in this.

QUESTION: Sir, could you just -- are you aware of reports that there are American missionaries in prison in North Korea?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: I'm not aware of that, to be honest with you. Now, that doesn't mean that it could not be true, but I don't have names of American citizens who are being held in North Korea. There are Koreans who cross over into China and then cross back into North Korea, sometimes with great courage and sometimes at great cost. In some cases, they are forced back.

QUESTION: Well, I can give you name is Kim Dong-Shik, who is living in California is a U.S. citizen and a Korean-American.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, I'd be grateful if you would pass that on to me or members of my staff who are here. I have lived in South Korea and it's an interesting situation that --

QUESTION: Recently, I talked with one of relative with Kim Dong-Shik. He had lost weight. He used to have 105 pound -- right now 38 pound in prison.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, having spoken with people who have escaped from prison, that's not -- as hard as that is to believe, I can believe it. There was a day when religious practice was so widespread in North Korea that it was called -- Pyongyang was called the Jerusalem of the East. But that changed a great deal as a result of the war, tragically, and I'll welcome your passing on that information

MR. ERELI: Let's go to this gentleman right here.

QUESTION: My name is Tom Ellis from Athens News Agency from Greece. How do you feel about the way Turkey, a very close ally of the U.S. and a NATO member, mistreats, I guess, the leader of 300 million Christians all over the world, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and what does the U.S. Government do or what can it do to pressure the Turkish Government to change its behavior?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: And explain to me, could you be more specific about ways in which you believe they mistreat people all over the world?

QUESTION: Not all over -- no, no. They mistreat the Patriarchate, Ecumenical Patriarch, who is the leader of 300 million Christians all over the world.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right. Well, this is an issue that we have raised a number of times and we will continue to raise with the Government of Turkey and we certainly understand this. I have met with Turkish officials and we've raised these problems, as well as property problems that, of course, go along with this.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) a positive response? Because President Clinton and President Bush met with the Patriarch, have repeatedly said that it's a matter of religious freedom.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: We've given indications that this is something that they're working towards resolving. I wish I could be more specific, but it's certainly something that we are working on.

QUESTION: A follow-up. Lambros Papantoniou, Eleftheros, Greek daily. During 2004-2005 and most recently the other day, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew in Istanbul, Turkey has been attacked by Turkish extremists in a way that his own Holiness is performing his religious duties under constant threat and the entire Ecumenical Patriarchate is functioning almost under a state of siege. How do you comment on that?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, it is difficult when there are private citizens that are responsible for these sorts of attacks, though we do feel it is a part of our responsibility, it is a part of the legislative mandate that set up our office that we are to strongly urge governments to protect people who are being attacked by private citizens, and that would be the case here as well.

QUESTION: Another follow-up. One more. Could you please clarify the U.S. position vis-à-vis to the re-opening of the Theological School of Halki for which Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is very concerned and is fighting very hard every day, and also your position to the systematic effort by all Turkish Government, including the recent one of (inaudible) Erdogan, to confiscate properties, even a few days ago, belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul, Turkey?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, I'm not aware of the events of the last few days, but I can tell you that we have raised the first case -- the seminary that you mention -- over and over and over again and been given some reason to hope that this will be resolved. I am frustrated that this has not proceeded more quickly.

QUESTION: The properties --

MR. ERELI: Mr. Lambros, let's move on.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Magazine. I just wanted to go back to Saudi Arabia and ask, you know, if there are ongoing problems, why was a six-month waiver of action given to the country?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, the reason for the six-month waiver, first, the International Religious Freedom Act gives us a number of options when a country is designated a CPC, or "Country of Particular Concern." One of the options is a waiver to further the interest of the Act, which basically means if we feel that we can further the cause of religious freedom by granting a waiver, then that can be an acceptable option.

In this case, it is a temporary wavier. And it's because we feel like our discussions are productive, unlike discussions with some other countries. We feel like the Government of Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction. And as I mentioned earlier, my heart and passion in this is to advance religious freedom as far as we can. And if I feel like some additional time to discuss some important issues may yield some meaningful change, I want to give that a try. And so that's the reason why we chose that option.

MR. ERELI: Let's have one or two more. Miss? Yes.

QUESTION: New Tang Dynasty Television. Last week, a Beijing lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, got his law firm shut down from the Chinese Government because he wrote an open letter to President Hu Jintao for Falun Gong, persecution of Falun Gong and unlawful of that action. So is President Bush going to mention him -- his issue or what is he going to do with the talk with President Hu Jintao about China's human rights?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: I can't comment specifically on exactly what cases the President will raise. As you know from observing his past trips to China, religious freedom issues have featured very prominently. He has spoken out boldly, attended worship services. As someone has said of President Bush, "Religious freedom isn't a talking point; it's a breathing point." And that's especially true in the case of China.

I remember one time I was at the White House at an event completely unrelated to my duties, and he came over to me and told me about having just raised religious freedom with leaders in China, which I had had nothing to do with -- totally to his credit. But while the Falun Gong are not officially a religion, more a spiritual movement, the suffering that they have endured is unspeakable. There have been so many who have been arrested -- thousands and thousands, many who have died in police custody and the problem just doesn't seem to abate. And so this is something we all are deeply concerned about.

We see similar tactics taken sometimes towards religious groups, such as the South China Church, for example, where this summer 500 members were arrested. This is a very similar sort of treatment. A hundred or so we believe are still in detention. Some people affiliated with this standard Christian church, the one registered, had been tortured terribly in the past.

In China, when I travel to China, it's a long list because we have Buddhists in Tibet and their serious problems and the way in which the Dalai Lama and his followers are treated. We have Muslims, Uighur Muslims, who sometimes are arrested and tortured, although we're thankful for the release of a prisoner, Rebiya Kadeer, that we've been asking for for years. We represent the Catholic Church, which has had so much trouble becoming recognized and having relations. We represent house churches, which have so many who suffer and become imprisoned.

My hope is that we will be able to turn a corner with China and there are sometimes reasons to be encouraged when they release prisoners but then they'll turn around and arrest another group. I think this is a case where there are certain people in the government who have one opinion, others who feel that religion poses no real threat and religious freedom will be a blessing to society. I've even been told that, as China struggles with a new generation that perhaps is growing up with different values than their parents, and they see in religious youth values that they respect more. And some Chinese officials see the value in religion. What's needed is for them to give the freedom of people to choose to practice their faith as long as it's going to be peaceful, and certainly that includes people that follow Falun Gong.

MR. ERELI: We'll take one more in the back. Yes. Sir.

QUESTION: Associated Baptist Press. Two questions. Number one, can you tell us if one of those countries that you're still negotiating with about CPC status is Pakistan? And number two, I see no mention of Afghanistan in the report and I would just ask why and what your comment is on the status of religious freedom currently in Afghanistan.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, I can't give any heads up on the countries that we are still sort of close to resolving things with. In Afghanistan, we see a great deal of progress which has occurred. We are not finding the incidents of harassment that we were some months back. We are pleased that the constitution grants religious freedom and commits the Government of Afghanistan to following international principles on religious freedom. And so we are pleased that Afghanistan is experiencing a higher level of religious freedom than that country has ever enjoyed.

MR. ERELI: Thank you very much. Thank you.


Released on November 8, 2005

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