Annually the U.S. Department of State, pursuant to statutory authorization, releases a report on the status of religious freedom in every country in the world. In addition, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom releases annual reports on the same subject for selected countries.
It should be noted at the outset that these two agencies are not seeking to impose on the rest of the world the U.S. constitutional prohibition of the “establishment of religion” or of “abridging the free exercise [of religion].”  Instead the agencies reports rely upon this definition of the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.
The post will review the latest State Department report on this subject for all 194 other countries in the world and the Commission’s latest report on 29 countries plus one large region (Western Europe).
Latest State Department Report
After emphasizing the importance of religious freedom, the State Department’s May 20, 2013, report “tells stories of courage and conviction, but also recounts violence, restriction, and abuse. While many nations uphold, respect, and protect religious freedom, regrettably, in many other nations, governments do not protect this basic right; subject members of religious minorities to violence; actively restrict citizens’ religious freedom through oppressive laws and regulations; stand by while members of societal groups attack their fellow citizens out of religious hatred, and fail to hold those responsible for such violence accountable for their actions.”
The report continues.”The immediate challenge is to protect members of religious minorities. The ongoing challenge is to address the root causes that lead to limits on religious freedom. These causes include impunity for violations of religious freedom and an absence of the rule of law, or uneven enforcement of existing laws; introduction of laws restricting religious freedom; societal intolerance, including anti-Semitism and lack of respect for religious diversity; and perceptions that national security and stability are best maintained by placing restrictions on and abusing religious freedom.”
Highlighted for concern by the report were “[l]aws and policies that impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, tell others about their religious beliefs and practices, or reject religion altogether remain pervasive. Numerous governments imposed such undue and inappropriate restrictions on religious groups and abused their members, in some cases as part of formal government law and practice.” Another concern was the “use of blasphemy and apostasy laws.” They “continued to be a significant problem, as was the continued proliferation of such laws around the world. Such laws often violate freedoms of religion and expression and often are applied in a discriminatory manner.”
The report documented “a continued global increase in anti-Semitism. Holocaust denial and glorification remained troubling themes, and opposition to Israeli policy at times was used to promote or justify blatant anti-Semitism. When political leaders condoned anti-Semitism, it set the tone for its persistence and growth in countries around the world. Of great concern were expressions of anti-Semitism by government officials, by religious leaders, and by the media.”
According to the report, “Governments that repress freedom of religion and freedom of expression typically create a climate of intolerance and impunity that emboldens those who foment hatred and violence within society. Government policy that denies citizens the freedom to discuss, debate, practice, and pass on their faith as they see fit also undercuts society’s ability to counter and combat the biased and warped interpretations of religion that violent extremists propagate. Societal intolerance increased in many regions during 2012.”
Finally the report said, “Governments exacerbated religious tensions within society through discriminatory laws and rhetoric, fomenting violence, fostering a climate of impunity, and failing to ensure the rule of law. In several instances of communal attacks on members of religious minorities and their property, police reportedly arrested the victims of such attacks, and NGOs alleged that there were instances in which police protected the attackers rather than the victims. As a result, government officials were not the only ones to commit abuses with impunity. Impunity for actions committed by individuals and groups within society was often a corollary of government impunity.”
The report also acknowledged the Department’s statutory obligation to designate “Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), i.e., those countries that are considered to commit “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and whose records call for the U.S. government to take certain actions under the terms of the Act. The term ‘‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom’’ means systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as: (a) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (b) prolonged detention without charges; (c) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (d) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”
Accordingly the report re-designated the following eight countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
Latest Commission Report
Under the authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) (or “Tier 1 Countries”) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.
In its latest report, issued on April 30, 2013, the following 15 countries were so designated: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Ubekistan (all of which had been designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the State Department the prior year) plus Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
The Commission also designates some countries as “Tier 2 Countries,” i.e., countries on the threshold of Tier 1 status, i.e., when their “violations . . . are particularly severe” and when at least one, but not all three, of the criteria for that status (“systematic, ongoing and egregious”) is met.
The latest report designated the following eight countries as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.
The latest report also discussed six other countries (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey and Venezuela and one region (Western Europe) that it monitored during the year. At first glance the monitoring of Western Europe seems anomalous, but here are the topics of concern to the Commission:
- Restrictions on religious dress (full-face veils) in France and Belgium.
- Failure in Sweden, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Poland, Norway and Iceland to exempt religious slaughter of animals from laws requiring prior stunning of the animals.
- Suggestions in Germany and Norway that religious circumcisions of male children were illegal.
- Restrictions on construction of Islamic minarets in Switzerland, and the lack of an official mosque in Athens, Greece.
- “Incitement to hatred” and other laws in almost all European states that can be used to restrict expression of religious beliefs.
- Reluctance in many European states to provide accommodation of religious objections to generally applicable laws.
- Measures in France, Austria, Belgium and Germany against religious groups perjoratively characterized as “cults” or “sects.”
- Societal intolerance, discrimination and violence based on religion or belief such as towards Muslim women with full-face veils, Jewish people and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It should also be noted that the Commission sometimes takes an adversarial position vis-à-vis the U.S. State Department. For example, on April 30, 2013, when the Commission released its latest report, its simultaneous press release recommended that the Department designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” the seven additional countries the Commission had placed in Tier 1 as noted above.
When the Department failed to do so in its May 20th report, the next day the Commission issued a press release criticizing the Department for failure to make additional CPC designations since August 2011 and to do so for the same seven additional countries.
Because of my personal interest in Cuba, including its religious freedom, a subsequent post will compare and contrast the two reports regarding that country.
Such a comparison, in my opinion, will show that the State Department’s reports are more balanced and fair at least with respect to Cuba.
 Id. § § 202, 205. The fascinating structure and composition of the Commission will be the subject of a future post.
 The State Department report noted that it considers the recommendations of the Commission on CPCs, but that the Secretary of State makes the final decision on that issue. The Department’s report thereby implicitly rejected the Commission’s recommendation for an additional seven countries to be so designated.
 Previously the Commission called this group the “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”