U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) responded to the administration's release today of the International Religious Freedom Report and Country of Particular Concern (CPC) designations, expressing surprise and disappointment at the countries missing from the list.
"Vietnam should without a doubt be on the sanctions list for its systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom--but it is glaringly absent," said Smith, who was one of the key architects of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), which required the annual reports and Country of Particular Concern designations, and accompanying sanctions to ensure that the protection and promotion of religious freedom remained an integral part of U.S. foreign policy.
"The report released today shows that Vietnam's religious groups face systematic and egregious abuses including arrests, detention, beatings and intimidation," said Smith. "At a time when the Vietnamese government is seeking major U.S. economic and security assistance, the administration must be seeking concrete improvements that advance U.S. interests in human rights--particularly religious freedom." Mr. Smith has been particularly concerned at scores of Buddhists and Christians imprisoned in Vietnam for practicing their religion or promoting religious freedom, including Father Nguyen Van Ly, who has been imprisoned for most of the last 20 years.
This has been another bad year for religious freedom in China. China remains one of the world's worst violators of religious freedom--Falun Gong, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and independent Christian groups all pay a terrible price for practicing their faiths. Worse yet, China's repressive methods are a model for many other countries, including Vietnam. "China has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern for its religious freedom violations for the past 15 years, but this designation has become a mere label, with no real consequences for bilateral relations or for those officials who continue to violate the rights of China's religious groups. This must change. The U.S. must become again the champion of human rights in China, particularly the fundamental right to religious freedom. The alternative is to allow China's model of repression to go unchallenged, stymieing the advance of democracy and freedom and dimming the hopes of China's brave advocates for rights and reform," said Smith.
The report's section on Nigeria said that the Nigerian government has been "ineffective in preventing or quelling religious-based violence" and "only occasionally investigated, prosecuted, or punished those responsible for abusing religious freedom, and sometimes responded to violence with heavy-handed tactics." The failure to adequately respond to the threat posed mostly by the terrorist group Boko Haram has allowed 1,793 Nigerian Christians to be killed for their faith last year and 1,631 Christians killed in the first six months of this year alone, according to estimates by the Jubilee Campaign. Jubilee estimates that last year nearly 1,000 more Christians were killed in Nigeria than were killed in the rest of the world.
"At a time when our government is making efforts to help Nigeria quell the Boko Haram onslaught, the Nigerians must do more to use all legal means to end the terror campaign by this group. Meanwhile, our government must use the powers provided by the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation of Boko Haram to investigate, identify and punish those who provide support of all kinds to this group," said Smith.
Chairman Smith has held more than a dozen hearings on religious freedom, including four on Nigeria alone. In the past nine months, he has visited Nigeria three times to meet with U.S. and Nigerian government officials, civil society organizations and victims of Boko Haram terror attacks.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), also created by IRFA as a watchdog on the State Department Reports, released their recommendations months ago (click here read to its 2014 Annual Report) that, in addition to the countries already designated as CPCs today, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam should also be held accountable as CPCs.
History has shown that when the U.S. makes religious freedom a priority and that priority is conveyed to countries, we have seen conditions change with minimal harm to security or economic cooperation.