State Department finally releases religious freedom report
Better late than never. On Friday, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on international religious freedom. It's almost two months late. The good news is that North Korea has been added to the list of "countries of particular concern," or the world's worst violators of religious freedom. The list already included Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan, as well as Afghanistan's Taliban regime (which the State Dept. doesn't recognize as a legitimate government).

The bad news is that the State Department didn't accept the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to add Laos, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan to the list. These countries are still criticized: "Freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia," the report says. But, explained State Department spokesman Richard Boucher in a Friday press briefing (full text | audio), "Given that there has been no change, no significant change one way or the other in the situation regarding religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, one would not expect the designation to change." Remember, however, that the USCIRF pushed for "countries of particular concern" status for all of these countries last year, too. And the State Department report even notes that this year religious freedom deteriorated even further in Turkmenistan and Laos. Boucher's only explanation is, "We didn't feel that they met the standard to be designated this year."

Expect religious freedom advocates to respond this week, but so far most of the organizations' Web sites don't have anything. Even the USCIRF page hasn't updated yet. One exception is Human Rights Watch (which, by virtue of being the only group talking, is the only group quoted in the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post). "Clearly, the Administration doesn't want to offend key allies in the [anti-terrorism] coalition through excessive truth-telling," says the organization's Tom Malinowski. Human Rights Watch is also upset that Uzbekistan wasn't named a "country of particular concern," even though it didn't even make the USCIRF's list (Ubzbekistan has been severely criticized by the commission as a country engaging in "grave violations of religious freedom"). The Washington Times, The New York Times, and Associated Press also have articles on the report.

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