US religious freedom watchdog mulls blacklisting Iraq

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WASHINGTON (AFP) — A US watchdog on religious freedom on Friday expressed serious concern over violations in strife-torn Iraq and was considering whether to place the ally of Washington on a blacklist with countries such as North Korea and Iran.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that it was “seriously concerned” about religious freedom conditions in Iraq, where widespread persecution of Christians has been reported.

The 10-member commission last year placed Iraq on its “watchlist” but its members were now divided on whether it should be maintained in that category or dumped to a “country of particular concern” blacklist, officials said.

“There is some contention, the debate is whether it should go up or down,” one official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The commission said in the letter to Rice, together with its annual recommendations on the status of religious freedom worldwide, that its members would travel to Iraq later this month to study the issue further.

It planned to make the “appropriate designation” for Iraq in the “near future.”

“The letter speaks for itself. You would hear from us soon,” commission chairman Michael Cromartie told a news conference when asked about the rare omission of the entire Iraq chapter from its 338-page annual report.

The divisions among the commission’s members over the draft Iraq chapter were reportedly along party lines.

Five members of the panel were appointed by the Republican Party and four by the Democrats. A State Department official in charge of religious freedom affairs serves as a non-voting member.

It would be an embarrassment for the administration of President George W. Bush if the influential commission recommends to the State Department that Iraq be downgraded as a country of particular concern.

The State Department’s latest religious freedom blacklist comprises North Korea, China, Iran, Myanmar, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

These were countries whose governments were considered to have “engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious” violations of religious freedom or belief.

Blacklisting Iraq could also prompt the next US president to impose sanctions on Baghdad as required by US law, including withholding foreign aid.

Five years after the United States waged war on Iraq saying it wanted to free the people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, ethnic and religious tensions threaten to rip the country apart.

“Just speaking for myself, I am particularly concerned by the fact that the religious minorities, the defenseless minorities — those without the militias — are being pushed out of Iraq,” commissioner Nina Shea said.

Widespread persecution of Christians, including the bombing of churches and the murder of priests, has forced hundreds of thousands to flee, mostly to neighboring countries or to Kurdish northern Iraq.

Iraq’s Christians, with the Chaldean rite the largest community, were said to total as many as 800,000 before the US-led invasion in 2003 but the number is now thought to be half that figure.

In its recommendations, the commission also asked Rice to reinclude Vietnam on the blacklist of religious freedom violators, as well as Pakistan and Turkmenistan.

It said dozens of individuals who advocate religious freedom reforms in Vietnam, which was removed from the State Department blacklist in 2006, were imprisoned or detained while ethnic minority Buddhists and Protestants were allegedly harassed, beaten or detained.

The commission also put Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria on its watchlist.