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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) > 2006 > November
Special Briefing

Washington, DC
November 13, 2006


Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John V. Hanford III on the Release of the State Departmentís 2006 Designations of Countries of Particular Concern for Severe Violations of Religious Freedom

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2:15 p.m. EST

MR. GALLEGOS: Good afternoon. How are you all doing? Thank you for coming. Let's see, May of 2002, John Hanford was appointed by President Bush as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. In this role, Ambassador Hanford leads our government's efforts to oppose religious persecution, to free religious prisoners and to promote religious freedom -- all core objectives of U.S. foreign policy. Today he's going to be discussing the latest Countries of Particular Concern.

Ambassador Hanford.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Good afternoon and thank you for coming. Today the Department of State transmitted to Congress the 2006 Designations of Countries of Particular Concern, or CPCs, for Severe Violations of Religious Freedom. Secretary Rice designated one new CPC, Uzbekistan, and re-designated seven countries which were on the CPC list last year: Burma, China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. This year, as a result of many positive steps taken by the Government of Vietnam over the last two years, Vietnam was not re-designated.

The International Religious Freedom Act requires the annual designation of CPCs where governments have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. We are committed to seeing improvements in each of these countries, improvements such as those that we have seen in Vietnam. Our decision not to re-designate Vietnam is one of the most significant announcements that we're making this year. When Vietnam was first added to the list of Countries of Particular Concern in 2004, conditions for many religious believers were dire, with campaigns to force people to renounce their faith in certain regions, dozens of religious prisoners and the harassment and physical mistreatment of some believers.

Today the Government of Vietnam has made significant improvements towards advancing religious freedom. Though important work remains to be done, Vietnam can no longer be identified as a severe violator of religious freedom, as defined under the International Religious Freedom Act. This marks the first time that a country has made sufficient progress as a result of diplomatic engagement to be removed from the CPC list and we view this as a very important milestone.

Major progress has been achieved on all points of concern that led to Vietnam's initial designation. In 2004 and 2005 Vietnam enacted three new legal documents which taken together significantly revise and clarify official policy on religion.

Four years ago when I was appointed Ambassador-at-Large, tens of thousands of people, entire villages in some cases, were being rounded up and pressured to renounce their faith. Today there are laws against forced renunciations and reports of this disturbing practice are now very isolated.
The former Prime Minister himself issued a special prohibition against this practice. And the current Prime Minister is also working to improve conditions for religious believers.

When I first traveled to Vietnam, there were dozens of individuals imprisoned for their religious beliefs. Today all of those people have been released. Prisoners included Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants and Hoa Hao, some of whom had been in jail for many years. Some of these names gained international attention, such as Thich Thien Mien, a member of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, or UBCV, who was first arrested in 1979 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was finally released as part of a presidential amnesty in 2005.

When we designated Vietnam a CPC, only three Christian groups were able to practice in the country legally and then with some strict limitations. Catholics were practicing but with an aging clergy, and they were in dire need of the freedom to train and ordain new priests to serve their congregations. As one example of progress, in November of last year, 57 new priests were ordained in Hanoi and have since been posted to minister to the needs of church members.

Northern Protestants, known as the Evangelical Church of Vietnam North, or ECVN, were barely able to operate as the Government of Vietnam had not allowed them to even meet as a body since 1988. Protestants in the south, or the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam, SECV, had only just been recognized. Then beginning in 2001, a government effort began and hundreds of churches were shut down. And even in situations were SECV and ECVN congregations were allowed to practice, they often did so under great duress. Now we're pleased to report that many hundreds of churches have been reopened and still more are operating freely and finally getting registered.

Both Protestant groups report much improved circumstances in terms of their ability to meet and operate in present-day Vietnam. And while the ECVN has faced greater problems in training clergy, the SECV has recently broken ground on a new training school, held a number of training courses for pastors over the last year and a half, and as one example, just this past month graduated 183 new pastors.

Another breakthrough indicating that the Government of Vietnam has begun to move in a whole new direction on religious freedom is the new-won freedom for previously outlawed religious groups and denominations to register and practice. These include certain Buddhist groups and the Baha'i as well as Baptists and other Christian groups who previously operated underground, were vulnerable to being shut down, and in some cases experienced serious harassment.

In the past month alone, 39 new congregations were registered in Ho Chi Minh City and plans are underway for some of these congregations to register many more of their congregations nationally. One area that the Government of Vietnam has been slow to address is the north and northwest highlands. When I traveled to Vietnam on my most recent trip in August, there were only six Christian congregations registered in the entire north. But now in the space of three months, 40 congregations have been approved for registration and the Government of Vietnam has accelerated the process to register many more in the near future.

Now, there's no question that important work remains to be done in order to advance religious freedom in Vietnam, and we're committed to continuing to press for additional progress. The registrations of congregations have begun in the north and northwest highlands. They've still not reached a majority of believers in those regions. And while those unregistered believers are now generally able to practice without harassment, registration would guarantee the security and rights of those believers. There are also a number of outstanding property disputes that religious organizations would like to see resolved in the near future. At times, local officials still take the law into their own hands, ignoring the central government's policies and creating problems for religious believers. Also some Buddhists, in particular the UBCV leadership, remain restricted in their freedom to move and to meet because they express certain political views which the government finds threatening. And some Montagnards in the central highlands have faced similar harassment because of their political views. Unfortunately, sometimes even believers who do not hold such positions may still be caught in the fray of such harassment.

It's important to note that removal from the CPC list does not mean that religious freedom conditions are fully achieved. There are many countries in the world with serious restrictions on religious freedom but which are not on the CPC list because their violations do not meet the criteria for that list. The Government of Vietnam has addressed the central issues that constituted severe violations of religious freedom. While the remaining problems merit immediate attention, they are simply not on the scale of what we witnessed in Vietnam before we began this process, and it is clear that Vietnam would not be made a CPC today given current conditions. And this is a great credit to the major changes which the Government of Vietnam has made in just the course of two years.

The work that we have achieved with the Government of Vietnam is a landmark for religious freedom and for the policy goals for this Administration. Designation as a CPC is not and must not simply be an exercise in naming and shaming. We find no satisfaction in heaping criticism on a country. The purpose of designation is to signal to a country that it has severe problems related to religious freedom that need to be addressed. And it's also a signal that the United States wants to work with that country to help overcome those problems.

The decision not to designate Vietnam is an important indicator that this is our goal and it should serve as a signal to other countries as well that our purpose in this process is to improve conditions for religious believers and that we will recognize progress when it occurs. We hope that the successes achieved in Vietnam can be a model for progress and bilateral relations as we continue to press for religious freedom reform in other nations around the world.

The Government of Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has been added to the list this year because it has chosen the path of increasing restrictions on religious expression and has refused to engage in meaningful discussions with us on this issue. Violations of religious freedom in Uzbekistan are widespread and severe, and the situation has continued to deteriorate this year. The already extremely restrictive religion law has been further tightened, congregations have been harassed and deregistered, and fines have been dramatically raised.

Muslims have long borne the brunt of the Government of Uzbekistan's harsh repression. The government continues to target observant Muslims for arrest, often considering conservative Islamic practice to be evidence of extremism and terrorism. It is clear that many of those harassed, abused, tortured and convicted of membership in extremist organizations such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir are simply observant Muslims.

It is estimated that thousands of Muslims who have no ties to extremist organizations have been harassed or detained simply on the basis of their religious beliefs and practices. Furthermore, authorities often resort to planting evidence. As a result of these abuses, observant Muslims have told us that they are afraid to be seen praying, attending mosque or otherwise expressing their faith, particularly if they have adopted a religious expression that is seen as not conforming to the government's sanctioned version of Islam.

I should make clear here that the United States is committed to protecting the internationally recognized right of religious freedom for people of all faiths. We work hard in our interactions with countries around the world to protect the religious freedom of Muslims of all Islamic traditions, regardless of a particular government's officially sanctioned interpretation or tradition of Islam. Harassment, restrictions on or persecution of peaceful religious practice are unacceptable and, in the end, work to exacerbate extremism and violence.

We've advocated for the rights of Muslims in many countries around the world, including Burma, India, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, China, France, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Uzbekistan, and we've protested a host of different ways in which governments may restrict religious practice. For example, in China we've pressed for the freedom of Muslims to teach their children their religious beliefs and attend mosques. We've advocated for the right of women to choose to wear headscarves in France and Turkey. We've worked for the freedom of Muslims of all traditions to worship without harassment by religious police in Saudi Arabia and in Iran. In Turkmenistan, we've asked for all Muslims to be able to register their congregations and practice their faith. And in Uzbekistan, we stand with Muslims for their right to worship according to the dictates of their consciences without being unfairly suspected as terrorists.

Now I want to make clear that we recognize that the Government of Uzbekistan faces a legitimate security threat from groups that have used religion as an excuse for violence, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group that is on the U.S. list of international terrorist organizations. In addition, we recognize that although the group Hizb-ut-Tahrir claims it is committed to nonviolence, it is in fact an extremist political organization that promotes hatred and whose members have praised acts of terrorism.

The Government of Uzbekistan has banned these two groups, and it's important to be clear our designation of Uzbekistan as a CPC is not in any way a defense of these groups. However, we do take issue with the Uzbek authorities' use of religious observance to profile religious believers as extremists without offering little if any material evidence that these individuals have been involved in or planned any specific acts of violence. This religious profiling has resulted in the arrest of many peaceful, observant, non-extremist Muslims, as well as allegations, dozens of them confirmed, that law enforcement officials have physically mistreated or tortured hundreds, perhaps thousands, over the years.

In addition to these egregious acts against Muslims, instances of the Uzbek Government's repression and abuse of Christians has increased markedly in the past year. We have seen raids, detentions, court trials, imprisonment, heavy fines, deportations and congregations closed. Under the expanded Law on Religion, the Uzbek Government has tried and convicted many Protestant religious leaders for "offenses" such as meeting without being registered, as well as illegally distributing religious materials. Even registered congregations have been targeted by Uzbek authorities, who have fined leaders and de-registered some groups.

In summary, Uzbekistan's abysmal record on religious freedom and other human rights has evoked widespread condemnation from the international community and NGOs. And so today we are taking the step of designating Uzbekistan as a Country of Particular Concern. Our hope, as always, is that this step will encourage the government to rethink its policies and undertake the necessary reforms.

Religious freedom is a cherished constitutional right for Americans. It is also a universal right, enshrined time and time again in international law and declarations. Our goal is to promote the fundamental right of freedom of religion through our bilateral relationships, our multilateral work and our ongoing discussions with faith communities around the world. As President Bush has said: ?Freedom of religion is the first freedom of the human soul. We must stand for that freedom in our country. We must speak for that freedom in the world.? Thank you and I'll be pleased now to take questions.

Yes.

QUESTION: I've got a couple quick ones. You said that this was -- that Vietnam's not being re-designated. It's the first time that a country has been taken off the list.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: It's the first time that a country has been taken off the list as a result of our working with that country, as a result of that country wanting to work towards progress, wanting to work with us. And then over in this case, a fairly brief period of time, making the improvements necessary.

QUESTION: So other countries have been taken off the list in the past but not because they wanted to work with you?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: That's right. Other countries -- the other countries that have been taken off the list were Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan we had the Taliban which, of course, was guilty of very severe restrictions on religious freedom and atrocities. And in Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, we also had in some cases horrible restrictions and atrocities. So those countries have been taken off. Unfortunately it was not because of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein's government were willing to work with us.

QUESTION: Two other just real quick things if I may. A U.S. citizen was released and deported today from Vietnam. This person had been accused of plotting against the state in Vietnam.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Right.

QUESTION: Does your decision today have anything to do with her release or with President Bush's visit this week for APEC?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: No, it doesn't. This decision has been frankly something that we've all been in agreement on for some time. And if I had had my druthers, we would have -- I would have been standing here many days ago making this announcement. Whenever we add a new country to the CPC list, in this case Uzbekistan, there are a remarkable number of complications and deliberations that I found, now having been here four years and seeing several countries added, and those simply took a lot longer than we expected. I am glad that we're able to make this announcement before the President goes. I was wondering if it would be afterwards. But the delay in getting the news out has nothing to do with Vietnam. That announcement could have been made quite a while ago.

QUESTION: What was the hitch? Was the Defense Department in particular opposed to designating Uzbekistan because of its military interest there?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: No. No, no, they were not. There's just a lot of bureaucratic interaction that goes on about why we're putting a country on the list, what our reasons are, how we're going to convey this, what we've done in the past to interact. It's just a very cumbersome process that takes in some cases months.

Let me get to you next.

QUESTION: Is it a political decision to announce it just before the trip, the President?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: No, it's not. No, it's not. This is something that, you know, I've made five trips to Vietnam. I think if you look at the record of what they've accomplished it's clear that they've not been given a pass in the past and they are not now. The changes are really dramatic. Again, I'll stress that there are still problems and we're going to continue to work with the Government of Vietnam.

But if you look at the definition in the International Religious Freedom Act of what constitutes a CPC, the emphasis there is on harsh treatment of believers and really severe widespread ongoing persecution. When we see a Government like Vietnam that has completely revamped their legal structure, had the Prime Minister personally weigh in and basically go over the whole legislative process and issue special instructions that outlawed forced renunciations of faith, when we've worked with them over a couple of years time and seen every one of the prisoners of concern that we had. And when I first went to Vietnam over four years ago, there were I think 40-some names on my list. So this has been quite a process of working with them over time. All of those men and women had been released at this point. Some of them had had very long sentences.

And so the time has come to acknowledge that Vietnam has done enough to cross over that line. One can always debate where that line is, but in this case it is merited and this was not a political decision.

Yes.

QUESTION: Ambassador, on Turkey. Did you notice any progress on religious freedom in Turkey and specifically for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and to the auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, we continue to work on those issues and I know you ask me that question whenever I'm up here.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yeah, that's right and we're continuing to work on them and I'm hopeful that there will be some progress. There was some news out of some progress just in the last couple of days. But I want to stick today with the CPC countries if that's okay. We can talk to you afterwards about Turkey.

QUESTION: One more question. Any comment about the upcoming meeting between the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew and the Pope Benedict XVI in Istanbul November 28th?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, we wish those talks well. But again, I think I would prefer to talk to you at another time rather than today.

QUESTION: Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: China's been on the list for a while. Would you say they're moving, backwards or what?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, we ask ourselves that question sometimes. The long-term trend, if you look back two or three decades in China, has been slow improvements, conditions are better today than they were 20 years ago certainly. And the Chinese in our discussions with them and as I've traveled there have been willing to signal a willingness to improve further.

For example, we have asked for the freedom for people to be able to meet in homes with friends and family gatherings without government harassment, without being harassed, arrested, and they've assured us that they will grant that. And they have even publicized this. We've asked for there to be the freedom for young people to be raised in their faith by their parents and by their churches or mosques or temples. And we have been told that this is the policy and they have again made this public and posted it on government websites. The problem is that these policies are very inconsistently implemented.

We also continue to see arrests, most recently of -- they seem to be targeting lawyers who have been representing religious believers who have been arrested even in violation, I think, of the law of China. So it's -- you know, it's -- there is a little progress here and lack of progress there, but China certainly has not made the sort of progress that we need to see in a systemic way to remove them from the CPC list. I look forward to that day and will continue to work for that day.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about the specific ways that the U.S. worked with Vietnam? You mentioned that it was because of that working that they were removed. And also, was there ever any pressure to act more aggressively on this because of the burgeoning trade relationship between the two countries?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: No. I'm the primary person who has done the interaction and the negotiations though I've been joined in this by other colleagues. The Secretary of State has weighed in on this and the White House certainly has and other officials. Barry Lowenkron, the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, has also weighed in on this.

Never has anyone contacted me and said we don't like Vietnam being on this list, get them off or speed it up. There's never been any of that. And instead, I'm just pleased to say that as we've worked with them there has been steady progress. I was not so optimistic when I first visited there in August of 2002. The reception I received was not encouraging. The issues that I was raising were to some extent ignored or denied that these things even existed. But I think the leadership of Vietnam made a decision that rather than dispute whether forced renunciations were occurring or dispute whether prisoners were religious prisoners or not, they would address the issues. And I think the legal changes are the ones that I always take the most encouragement for because that -- encouragement from because that bodes best for the long term. And the way in which they are implementing these news laws is very encouraging.

Proof's in the pudding. And the fact that Vietnam has not just put this into law but has also gone out, trained local officials, who sometimes can be slow to get the message; trained them in how to reach out to religious groups, registered and unregistered, and free things up; allow them to meet and work with them to get registered has been very, very significant.

So again, if you release all the prisoners of concern that we have, you stop forced renunciations, which were occurring, as I mentioned, by the tens of thousands around the country, and you go back to churches that have been closed pell-mell by the hundreds and reopen those and then start registering hundreds and hundreds of churches, which gives them a very important legal status, we're hearing from every religious group that we meet with that conditions have improved, that there's really a change in the attitude.

Yes.

QUESTION: What about the re-designation of Saudi Arabia and Iran?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Please say that again?

QUESTION: What about the re-designation of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the CPC list?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: When we re-designate a country, it's because there has not been sufficient improvement in the past year to warrant taking them off the list. I made an announcement not too long ago -- I guess about four months ago or so -- that we had done a lot of significant work with Saudi Arabia, and we announced that we had been able to identify and confirm a number of policies which we took encouragement from which addressed various aspects of religious practice. This included efforts by the government to control the religious police, the Mutawwa'in, who are often the ones who are guilty of the harassment or physical abuse of religious believers. This included retraining teachers and imams, who may have in the past been guilty of extremist statements.

And then very importantly it included a commitment to address the problem of intolerance in educational literature, which has been disseminated around the world by the Saudis and which included many intolerant statements against both other branches of Islam, Christians, Jews. And we were very encouraged. The Saudis said we're going to take this seriously, we are going to remove these intolerant references. They gave us a time frame of one to two years. We see some progress already. We know that on certain fronts things have been slowed down a little bit. I know that there was a desire to update the science and technology portions of their textbooks and that has not happened as quickly as they had planned. They have a national dialogue which the King is responsible for having started in the country on educational issues which will be occurring soon and this will be very pivotal. But we'll continue working with the Saudis towards these goals which they have come out with and set for themselves and which we take some encouragement from.

QUESTION: A follow-up about Iran. I mean, do you -- one, do you see any trend in Iran? And (b) do you have any way of dialoguing with them about their record?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Well, it's difficult because we don't have diplomatic relations, but we work through other countries and through multilateral fora who do interact with Iran and we make our statements clear where religious minorities face harassment. And indeed there have been statements and resolutions before Congress which we've supported about religious minorities in Iran. And so that's the way in which we have done this work.

QUESTION: Is there a trend?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: We don't see -- you know, again, in some cases you see some improvement but in other cases you see a step back. For example, the Baha'is have been allowed this year to enter higher levels of education for the first time and this is encouraging, but the way in which it's playing out is not as encouraging as we had hoped. And so that's a small step and we hope that there'll be many other steps which occur.

QUESTION: How many years has Vietnam been on this list?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Two years.

QUESTION: Okay. How long has the list existed?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: The list has existed since 1999, I believe.

QUESTION: So it was placed on there two years ago?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: That's correct. Mm-hmm. Yeah, this is fairly quick progress in the world of religious freedom work. I frankly wasn't optimistic that I'd be standing before you this quickly.

It's important when a country makes this kind of progress to be willing to give credit where credit is due. And while again I want to stress things aren't perfect, there are still some serious problems remaining, the harsh issues and the imprisonment issues and the attitude that was causing whole religions to be -- or much of a religion or two to be shut down, this has been reversed, and instead the government is working to help religious groups to get established and legal before the law.

We're going to continue working the problems. I mentioned a number of those in my remarks. And I can assure you that we'll continue working on them.

QUESTION: A question on this, a couple quick ones. On Vietnam, the first renunciations of tens of thousands of people and the rounding up of whole villages, those were what denominations -- Protestants?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Those were primarily focused in the central highlands for Protestants and in the northwest highlands, but they were best known in the central highlands region.

QUESTION: Primarily they were Protestants? Not other denominations?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: That's correct. There were problems of this sort with other denominations but not nearly to the extent that there were with Protestants.

QUESTION: And then Afghanistan and Iraq are indeed the only two countries that have ever been -- other than Vietnam that have ever been removed from the list?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Say that again?

QUESTION: Afghanistan and Iraq are the only two other countries that have been removed?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: That's right.

QUESTION: And the last question -- I think the law was passed in 1999, but it's not clear to me whether you actually made designations in '99. So if for any reason -- if you could just make sure that we've got that right.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Yeah. Although the law was present in 1998.

QUESTION: '98 -- excuse me. Okay.

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: And I can rattle off for you: Burma was designated in 1999; China in '99; Eritrea in 2004; Iran in '99; North Korea in 2001. And the only reason for that was we didn't have good information because North Korea deserved it, you know, 20 years ago. Saudi Arabia in 2004, Sudan in 1999 and Vietnam in 2004.

QUESTION: Eritrea, you said in 19 -- Eritrea?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: Eritrea, yes.

QUESTION: Eritrea which year?

AMBASSADOR HANFORD: 2004.

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