- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

A panel created by Congress to monitor State Department enforcement of U.S. foreign policy on religious liberty yesterday said the administration has ducked legal requirements to criticize and sanction the worst nations.
"Actions taken by the executive branch in response to serious violations of religious freedom have been sporadic," said the annual report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The State Department is required to issue an annual report every fall naming "countries of particular concern" and recommending any sanctions. For three years, five countries Burma, China, Iran, Iraq and Sudan have made that list but no extra sanctions were placed on them beyond earlier U.S. policies, the new report said.
The panel asked the State Department to designate Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan as the worst violators and to monitor India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam more closely.
Acknowledging the foreign policy burdens of building coalitions to fight terrorism, the commission said the United States is still required by the new International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) to confront regimes that allow religious persecution.
A State Department official said the report has "not been assimilated" yet by the administration, which meanwhile has a "strong working relationship" with the commission.
"This will be read carefully," the official said. "I'm sure there will be disagreements over some of the criticisms."
The report, issued at a news conference, said the State Department's annual religious liberty report lacks detail on governments suspected of violations and any U.S. actions, political or economic, taken against those nations.
"The Annual Report leaves the impression that the [State] Department is without a plan as to how to implement IRFA's central statutory purpose," the report said.
Under IRFA, Congress set up the commission to prod the State Department, which historically is reluctant to address religious issues and confront other nations on internal affairs.
The nine-member commission said no increase in sanctions "provides little incentive" for the worst countries to relieve the oppression. The commission urged the administration to "use the full range of available policy tools, especially in the case of China and Sudan, to take additional action."
Yesterday's report, which is required each May, surveyed religious liberty violations in 22 nations, ranging from violence in North Korea, India and Indonesia to laws outlawing sects in France and Russia.
"The fight against terrorism is an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to rule of law and human rights," the report said, suggesting that the United States may overlook violations to solidify the anti-terrorism coalition.
During its three years, the commission which has its own ambassador and is made up of human rights, legal and religion experts has held several Capitol Hill hearings and its staff has gone abroad on fact-finding tours.
In the process, foreign governments have confused its independent role with the State Department's office, which has tended to "blur the distinction" between the two, the report said.
"The State Department has been less than helpful in assisting the Commission in meeting with representatives of foreign governments during their visits to Washington," it said.
The State Department ambassador position, vacant for a 1 years, was filled Thursday when John Hanford was sworn in. The report said the office and embassies abroad need an "increase in staffing" to fulfill the law's mandates.

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