Panel faults Obama for lagging on religious freedom

Associated Press Modified: April 29, 2010 at 3:20 pm •  Published: April 29, 2010
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WASHINGTON (RNS) The U.S. government is not doing enough to protect religious freedoms abroad, the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said Thursday (April 29) in its annual report to Congress and the White House.

''The problems are above and beyond what we saw last year, and the administration must do more," said Leonard Leo, chair of the commission, which was founded by Congress in 1998.

The commission named 13 "countries of particular concern" on religious freedom violations: Burma, North Korea, Nigeria, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The panel also named 12 countries to a second-tier "watch list" that deserve close monitoring by Washington: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela. India was the only new addition from last year.

Beyond the annual list of offenders, which has remained relatively stable in recent years, commissioners chided the Obama administration and U.S. diplomats for ignoring religion in foreign policy when so many conflicts find their roots — or justification — in religion.

''We're completely neglecting religious freedom in countries that tend to be Petri dishes for extremism," Leo said. "This invariably leads to trouble for us."

The commission brings attention to global "hot spots" where freedom of religion is threatened by state hostility, state-sponsored extremist ideology, or failure to protect human rights.

Commissioners said the issue of religious freedom has been, and continues to be, largely ignored. "Regrettably, this point seems to shrink year after year for the White House and State Department," Leo said.

Indeed, the lists' stability — the addition of India represented the only change from last year's report — has been interpreted by some observers as reflecting of lack of progress or priority.

''It's the red-headed step-child no one pays attention to," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who was the panel's vice chair from 2007-2008.

More than 10 years after the International Religious Freedom Act that created the bipartisan panel, the commission says the State Department has not implemented or underutilized key provisions of the law.

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