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Panel faults Obama for lagging on religious freedom

Associated Press Modified: April 29, 2010 at 3:20 pm •  Published: April 29, 2010

Of the eight nations designated as a "country of particular concern" (CPC) by the State Department, only one, Eritrea, faces sanctions specifically imposed under the IRFA for religious freedom violation. Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam — which are all cited by the panel — are not included on the State Department's CPC list.

The State Department has declined to designate other countries suggested by the panel, and hasn't made any designations since 2006.

''It's befuddling how countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt who receive so much aid are so far behind in ensuring religious freedom," Leo said.

The State Department last year issued an indefinite waiver on Saudi Arabia; as a result, the U.S. will not implement any policy response to severe violations in that country.

''Saudi Arabia continuously gets a pass," said Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute and a USCIRF commissioner since 1999.

President Obama emphasized religious freedom during landmark speeches in Turkey and Egypt last year, but the commission and other human rights advocates say the high-level gestures have not resulted in actual policy change.

''In foreign policy, you're forced to balance out competing interests," said Leo. "It's easy to go into bilateral talks and ignore human rights and the issues that aren't fun for countries to talk about."

Alexander McLaren, spokesman for the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, said that although the department hasn't made any CPC designations this year, recommendations are always taken into consideration.

''We welcome the report and will review it as we make our CPC designations," he said.

The panel also joined other critics who have chided the administration for not filling the State Department's ambassador-at-large position for international religious freedom.

''It's is a disgrace," said Thomas Farr, a former diplomat and current director of the Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy program at Georgetown University. "The administration doesn't see the importance of integration of religion in our foreign policy and national security agendas."