U.S. State Department overlooks ‘especially dire’ religious freedom violations in Iraq

pplogo3003091.jpgWashington D.C., Mar 31, 2009 / 02:03 am (CNA).- Newly public information shows that the U.S. State Department in January rejected a recommendation that Iraq be named a Country of Particular concern due to “especially dire” threats to minorities’ religious freedoms. The State Department also granted waivers for Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia, where religious freedom violations have been called “appalling.”

A U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) press release reports that on Jan. 16 Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice formally designated Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). The Bush administration classified the same countries as CPCs in 2006.

The latest CPC list was not made available until last week, when the State Department released it in response to a USCIRF inquiry.

The president is required to encourage improvements in CPC countries through tools such as sanctions. CPCs may be granted a waiver on such restrictions if the president determines it is in U.S. interests. Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan were given waivers by the outgoing Bush administration, while no sanction was cited to be applied to any other country.

Lamenting official inaction, the USCIRF expressed disappointment that the State Department did not accept its recommendation to designate Pakistan, Vietnam, Turkmenistan and Iraq as CPCs.

In December 2008, with little media coverage, USCIRF released the Report of the United States Commission on Religious Freedom on Iraq.

The Commission in its report recommended Iraq be designated a CPC “in view of the ongoing severe abuses of religious freedom and based on the Iraqi government’s toleration of these abuses as described in this report, particularly abuses against all of Iraq’s most vulnerable and smallest religious minorities.”

Acknowledging a decline in violence in Iraq since May 2007, the Commission said “there has been continued targeted violence, as well as threats and intimidation against persons belonging to religious minorities, and other egregious religiously-motivated abuses are continuing and widespread. The lack of effective government action to protect these communities from abuses has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities.”

The December 2008 report said the situation is “especially dire” for ChaldoAssyrian Christians, other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis. Adherents are targeted by violence and often flee to other parts of Iraq or other countries.

“These communities report that their numbers in Iraq have substantially diminished, and that their members who have left the country have not to date showed signs of returning in significant numbers,” the report said. “Legally, politically, and economically marginalized, these small minorities are caught in the middle of a struggle between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central Iraqi government for control of northern areas where their communities are concentrated. The combined effect of all of this has been to endanger these ancient communities’ very existence in Iraq.”

Felice Gaer, USCIRF chair, said in a March 27 statement that the Commission is “disappointed” that Secretary Rice refused to designate any new countries and that Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia were granted waivers.

“Religious freedom conditions in Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia are appalling and a specific U.S. government response is required,” Gaer said.

Saudi Arabia has been a CPC since 2004 and has received a waiver every year. USCIRF said there has been “little or no improvement” in the kingdom’s religious freedom conditions.

Gaer criticized inaction on religious freedom violations, saying:

“State Department efforts to negotiate with certain countries to bring about improvements in religious freedom certainly might be an appropriate reason for delaying CPC designation, but the Commission concludes that the State Department should have acted years ago in the case of a number of the countries our Commission recommended for CPC designation, under our statutory authority.

“As it reviews the previous Administration’s CPC designations, we hope the Obama Administration will recognize the added value that CPC status can bring to American public diplomacy on human rights.”

USCIRF’s 2009 Annual Report will be delivered to Congress, the President and the Secretary of State on May 1. It will recommend nations to be designated as CPCs and recommend nations for the USCIRF Watch List.