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U.S. cites five nations for religious persecution
Jonathan Wright WASHINGTON

The State Department has designated China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar and Sudan as countries of particular concern for violations of religious freedom, making them liable for U.S. diplomatic and economic sanctions, spokesman James Rubin said Wednesday.

The designations are the first under a procedure mandated by Congress in last year's Religious Freedom Act.

The test is whether a government has "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom during the preceding 12 months."

But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has not yet decided what sanctions should apply to each of the five cases, and the United States already has limited contacts with several of the countries, Rubin said.

The State Department is also naming Serbia and the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, which are not sovereign states, as "particularly severe violators of religious freedom," he said.

Last year's act offers the administration 15 policy responses ­ eight diplomatic and seven prohibitions on U.S. aid or economic sanctions.

The options range from diplomatic protest and cutting diplomatic exchanges to limits on export licenses and votes against loans by international institutions.

Robert Seiple, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, also announced the designations at a congressional hearing Wednesday and formal congressional notification would follow within a few days.

Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who fought hard for the Religious Freedom Act, criticized the State Department for sparing other countries which practice persecution.

He said the list of designated countries should have included Vietnam, North Korea, Laos, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

"Were the President and his advisers more worried about 'injuring the relationship'...than with giving the honest assessment required by the plain language of the statutes?" he asked Seiple in the international operations subcommittee.

The Religious Freedom Act also requires the State Department to prepare an annual report on the extent of religious persecution around the world.

The report, released in September, criticizes many other governments, including those of U.S. allies Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Asked why such countries escaped designation, Rubin said, "One makes judgements as to where the worst offenses are and that's what we've judged."

The United States has no relations with Iran, Iraq or Serbia and has poor relations with Myanmar and Sudan.

Therefore it might not be possible to find a new category of sanctions that would have any effect on those governments.

"That doesn't mean we shouldn't identify them as countries that are violating religious freedom...Those we do have ties with, we will make our own judgements as to what the right sanction should be," Rubin said.

Where the United States already takes punitive measures against one of those countries, sanctions under the Religious Freedom Act might stay in reserve in case sanctions imposed for other reasons are lifted, he added.

The annual report cited China for persecuting Tibetan Buddhists, Muslim Uighurs and Protestant and Roman Catholics who do not belong to "official" churches.

It said the Chinese constitution provides for freedom of religious belief but in practice the government "seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of religious groups."

Iran was faulted for trying to "eradicate" the Bahai faith, while Iraq was criticized for conducting a campaign of murder, execution and arrests against the Shi'ite Muslim population.

The Sudanese government has been repeatedly accused of trying to impose Islam on the animists and Christians of the south. Buddhists say the military government of Myanmar has executed some Buddhist monks and destroyed monasteries, charges the authorities have denied.

©Copyright 1999, Middle East Times Egypt

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