2004 Introduction

International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

As has often been observed, America was founded, in significant measure, by persons fleeing religious persecution and seeking a haven where they could live out their faith without fear of government interference or reprisal. Today, religious freedom remains for many Americans the most treasured of human rights, because it represents the very freedom to seek, know, and serve God according to the dictates of one's own conscience. Our nation's impulse to protect and champion this freedom is born of our history, is strengthened by our resolve to advance all fundamental human rights, and is enriched by the priority which many Americans continue to place on the importance of religious faith in their own lives.

What is less often acknowledged is that there are many nations and cultures around the world where religious freedom is equally valued as precious - indeed where large portions of populations would say that their freedom to believe and worship is their most vital and indispensable right. It is this aspiration that we seek to serve in this, the sixth annual International Religious Freedom Report.

The first edition of this report, in 1999, declared that "while religion can be a source of conflict, religious freedom - the right to pursue one's faith without interference - can be a cornerstone of human dignity and of all human rights...To cry out against the torture of people because of their religion, to demand the release of those imprisoned for religious belief, to insist that religious minorities be protected - these are not simply actions on behalf of the oppressed. They are also actions to indemnify a precious and universal right."

As much as those words articulated the holistic priority of religious freedom, they also sounded a caution against the persecution of religious believers and the distortion of religion. Today, as at other times in history, some of the greatest threats to both our national security and to international peace define and even justify their violence in religious terms. This report, in advocating civil societies based on the respect of religious freedom, offers a compelling alternative.

The promise of religious freedom stands in stark, enduring contrast to the peril of religious extremism. Religious extremists cling desperately to the idea that religion demands the death of innocents and the destruction of liberty. We hold confidently to the idea that religious freedom respects the life of all and the cultivation of human dignity. While religious terrorism dictates violent intolerance, religious freedom encourages peaceful coexistence. What religious extremism demands as the iron rule of the state, religious freedom reserves for the sanctity of the individual conscience. Where religious terrorism defiles the sacred, religious freedom honors the sacred.

This is seen in practice as much as in principle. Nations that respect religious freedom rarely pose a security threat to their neighbors. Nations that protect religious pluralism defuse the appeal of religious intolerance and its violent corollary, religious terrorism. Nations that affirm religious liberty also lay a cornerstone of democracy and rule of law. For these reasons alone, promoting religious freedom is as much in our national interest as it is our national ideal. As we continue our efforts to shape a more secure, just, and peaceful world, religious freedom holds a prominent place.

And so religious freedom endures as an ideal, even while threats to it never cease. Though naturally endowed in all people, freedom does not occur naturally in the world. History bears abundant witness to the enduring tension between freedom's resilience as a natural aspiration of the human heart, and freedom's fragility in the reality of human life. While the number of people living in freedom around the world today is strong and growing, too many others still suffer under oppressive regimes, authoritarian rulers, and intolerant systems. Freedom may be a reality for many, but it remains still only a dream for too many others.

Our own nation's founders well understood this paradox. Thus could the Declaration of Independence affirm the transcendence of freedom as a right of all people "endowed by their Creator," in all times and places, while at the same time protesting the too familiar tyranny which oppressed so many. Thus could President Lincoln declare that the Declaration promised "liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time." And thus can President Bush affirm, "Freedom is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to humanity."

In short, religious freedom is a hallmark of our nation's history, and it is a blessing that we seek to share. "Almighty God hath created the mind free," declared Thomas Jefferson in introducing the landmark Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, "and the rights hereby asserted are the natural rights of mankind." Such natural rights are not confined to Americans, nor should they be. This is one reason why Franklin Delano Roosevelt further enshrined this commitment as a national priority and international goal. In January 1941, as much of the world lay in chains or in peril and the war in Europe and Asia ominously approached our nation's door, he responded not just with economic and security assistance but also with the promise of the "Four Freedoms." One of these "essential human freedoms," he proclaimed, is the "freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world."

Our own nation's history has not been perfect, nor do we claim to be so today. We continue to strive, at home and abroad, to uphold religious freedom as the universal right that it is. The spiritual longings of the human heart have an innate dignity all their own, deserving our respect and demanding our protection.

The Annual Report

While religious freedom has come to be appreciated more and more as a universal principle, in too many countries today it is honored only in the breach. This report represents, in tangible form, the U.S. Government's ongoing efforts to help translate religious freedom from an ideal to a reality. It is one measure to bridge the divide between principle and practice. It combines analysis with endeavor. It details the legal situation, cultural context, and relevant policies, and it also describes efforts taken by the United States Government to oppose religious persecution and promote religious freedom. We do not confine our reporting to the negative. Many countries display an admirable respect for religious freedom, while other countries continue to improve in policy and practice. They are described here as well, and they bear witness to what is possible.

Yet the challenge remains, and must be met. Many people continue to suffer for the belief or practice of their faith, and many governments refuse to recognize or protect this natural and universal right. That religious believers willingly endure beatings, torture, imprisonment, and even death is a bracing reminder of the resilience of faith. That we can tell in this report of their plight and their perseverance is a testament to their courage.

In 1998, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which, among other things, commissioned this report, and created an office at the State Department with the mandate of integrating religious freedom advocacy into our foreign policy. President Bush has maintained this commitment, stating in his National Security Strategy that the U.S. Government will "take special efforts to promote freedom of religion and conscience and defend it from encroachment by repressive governments."

The Office of International Religious Freedom

The Office of the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom has now completed its sixth year. The Office has the simple yet daunting mission of promoting religious freedom worldwide. The Ambassador is charged with the responsibility of serving as the principal advisor to the President and the Secretary of State on matters of international religious freedom.

The Ambassador and his staff monitor the worldwide status of religious persecution and discrimination and devise strategies to reduce abuses. Just as importantly, they develop strategies to promote religious freedom, both to attack the root causes of persecution and as a means of advancing other fundamental U.S. interests, such as protecting other core human rights, encouraging the growth of mature democracies, and furthering the war against terrorism.

These strategies are carried out in a variety of ways, using the range of diplomatic tools available, including both formal and informal bilateral negotiations with foreign government authorities; participation in multilateral fora such as the United Nations and the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe; cooperation with human rights and faith-based NGOs; and meetings with victims of persecution. Often the Ambassador and staff, along with other U.S. officials, engage in direct intervention in particular crises in order to remove people of faith from harm's way or to forestall further persecution.

In all cases, the Office, which is staffed with experienced Foreign Service and Civil Service officers, works closely with its counterparts elsewhere in the State Department, the U.S. Government, and in U.S. missions overseas. U.S. Foreign Service officers abroad form the front line of our religious freedom policy. Many of their activities, and those of the Office of International Religious Freedom, are discussed in Part III of the Executive Summary. Some of their most heroic actions, however, must necessarily remain out of the spotlight in order to protect those involved.

As I continue my term as the second Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, I wish to thank all the employees of the Department of State here and abroad who have made this report possible. In particular, I want to acknowledge the dedicated work of our human rights officers throughout the world, as well as the members of the Office of Country Reports and Asylum Affairs at the State Department, who have worked long and hard to craft this report. I also want to express appreciation for the vigilant and bipartisan support that Congress has demonstrated on this issue. In addition, a debt of gratitude is owed to so many who work on behalf of the oppressed in non-governmental organizations. We rely on their on-the-ground reporting and extensive network of contacts to ensure that our report is as fair, accurate, and comprehensive as possible. Finally, I wish to thank my own staff in the Office of International Religious Freedom, whose commitment to religious freedom for all people is both indefatigable and inspiring.

John V. Hanford III,
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom