New York, 22 May (ENI)--A US government commission appointed to investigate violations of religious freedom outside the United States has claimed that repression against religious believers is worsening in a number of countries, particularly in Sudan
"Sadly, the situation world-wide has been growing worse," Lawrence Goodrich, a spokesman for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told ENI following the release earlier this month of the commission's annual report.
The commission was established in 1998 by legislation passed by the US Congress and approved by former President Bill Clinton. In a 6 May news conference announcing the report, commission chairman Michael Young was particularly harsh in his assessment of the government of Sudan. He said that religion was a major factor in Sudan's civil war and that "religious persecution by the Khartoum regime was intertwined with other human rights and humanitarian violations in Sudan". Among the problems cited in the report were the bombing of civilians and of humanitarian facilities; denial of international humanitarian assistance; abduction of women and children into conditions of slavery; and driving out of whole communities from oil-producing areas.
Young said that "Sudan's government continues to commit genocidal atrocities against civilian populations in the south and central parts of the country", such as the bombing in February of a World Food Program feeding centre in the western Upper Nile, and the denial in April of access for humanitarian relief flights on which almost 2 million people depend.
Noting the more prominent role that oil is taking in the Sudanese civil war, the commission recommended that Sudan's oil revenues be placed in an internationally administered trust fund. They would be spent solely for humanitarian purposes, half in the predominately Muslim north, half in the predominately Christian south.
On North Korea, Young said that religious freedom did not exist and "what little religious activity that is permitted by the government is apparently staged for foreign visitors". North Koreans were "perhaps the least free on earth, barely surviving under a totalitarian regime", he claimed.
The commission recommended that the US initiate a major initiative to expose human rights abuses within North Korea and also pressure China to grant refugee status to North Koreans who cross the border into China. On Turkmenistan, the commission described the former Soviet republic as "a state where human rights and religious freedom were severely curtailed by an authoritarian government". Only two religions, Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, Young said, were officially recognised, and even these two were highly restricted by the state.
Members of minority religious groups had been arrested, detained, tortured, imprisoned and deported, he said. The commission urged the US government to suspend most non-humanitarian assistance to the government of Turkmenistan - though the commission did make an exception for programmes that Young said served US "national security interests" connected to what has been called the US war on terrorism.
Some observers have questioned the impartiality of the commission. Yvonne Haddad, a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University, questioned how nations were selected for criticism by the panel and suggested that the commission applied inconsistent standards because of lobbying from US advocacy groups, Religion News Service reported.
But Goodrich defended the commission's work, telling ENI that the commission's selection of nations was fair and that, in its work, the commission met with "hundreds of religious groups" representing a broad range of faith traditions and ideologies.
Asked if the commission was concerned with a possible perception among other nations that it was a self-appointed world watchdog group, Goodrich said other countries had not made the issue of religious freedom a priority.
The commission's members include academics and religious leaders representative of various religious traditions. They are appointed by the US president and leaders of the US Congress. Besides Young, who was a former official in the administration of President George Bush's father and is now a dean of the George Washington University Law School in Washington, the commission includes Firuz Kazemzadeh, professor emeritus of history at Yale University and the senior advisor to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, and Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.