International Religious Freedom Report 2008

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.
--Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The right to freedom of religion is under renewed and, in some cases, increasing assault in many countries around the world. More than one-half of the world's population lives under regimes that severely restrict or prohibit the freedom of their citizens to study, believe, observe, and freely practice the religious faith of their choice. Religious believers and communities suffer both government-sponsored and government-tolerated violations of their rights to religious freedom.
--International Religious Freedom Act of 1998

This year marks the anniversary of two great documents for religious freedom -- the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration has now, for six decades, served as a standard by which to measure governments' respect for genuine religious freedom, while at the same time standing as a beacon of hope to those suffering persecution and harassment. Ten years ago, the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act brought new emphasis and structure to America's age-old priority of promoting religious freedom. Much good has come of this intensified focus. Countless people of faith have enjoyed new-found freedoms, and government policies on religion have improved in some nations. Yet, despite such progress, the description of conditions quoted above from the Act still provides an accurate picture of the situation of religious freedom in too many countries around the world.

Because of the ongoing infringement of religious freedom and continuing instances of outright persecution, the United States Government steadfastly promotes the respect of this universal human right. The International Religious Freedom Act reinforced the priority of this critical foreign policy objective by creating at the U.S. Department of State the position of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Office of International Religious Freedom, and by mandating the annual issuance of this report. With these and other tools for the advocacy and protection of religious freedom, the United States encourages compliance with international commitments and obligations, condemns violations of religious freedom, and fosters respect for religious freedom as a fundamental right of all people.

The 2008 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom is one of the most visible products of this ongoing effort, and it serves as a testament of cooperation among scores of State Department officers at embassies and consulates around the world, in regional and functional bureaus, and in the Office of International Religious Freedom, all of which have worked tirelessly to compile this comprehensive document. Exceeding 800 pages in length and covering 198 countries and territories, the Annual Report is an unrivaled compendium. However, the work would not be possible without the vital contributions of religious groups, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human dignity. The ongoing support of the U.S. Congress is also deeply appreciated. In short, we view the Annual Report as an extension of support from the American people to those who silently struggle for their religious rights all over the world.

The coinciding anniversaries of the International Religious Freedom Act and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remind us of the universality of the human rights these documents protect. Paramount to the issue of religious freedom is Article 18 of the Universal Declaration, which protects the internal right to believe, the external right to worship and share, the individual right to choose, and the personal right to do so without fear of government intervention or harm. Notably, it was Charles Malik, an Arab diplomat from Lebanon, who in 1948, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, played a critical role in the formulation of this article. Later Malik said that the Universal Declaration reminds every person that,

…he is born free and equal in dignity and rights with his fellow men, that he is endowed by nature with reason and conscience, that he cannot be held in slavery or servitude, that he cannot be subjected to arbitrary arrest, that he is presumed innocent until proved guilty, that his person is inviolable, that he has the natural right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression.

In view of the global consensus on the importance of religious freedom, the United States works to encourage all governments to uphold their international obligations and commitments without advocating a specifically American approach to the issue. In addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, religious freedom is protected under numerous international instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, the Helsinki Accords, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights. The relevant religious freedom sections of these important documents can be found in the appendix of this Annual Report.
While this year marks a decade of vigorous work under the International Religious Freedom Act and 60 years of international commitment to universal human rights, we celebrate these anniversaries with a solemn awareness of the enormous work that remains.

As President Bush recently noted at a White House event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act:

This legislation that we commemorate today builds on a tradition that defined our nation. After all, when the Founding Fathers adopted the Bill of Rights, the very first liberty they enshrined was the freedom of religion. They recognized that the most basic freedom a man can have is the right to worship…We are blessed to live in a country where freedom is respected. [Yet] in too many countries, expressions of freedom are silenced by tyranny, intolerance, and oppression.

Of course, the furtherance of religious freedom by no means lies solely in the hands of the United States Government, but is a goal shared by many other governments, by numerous religious and nongovernmental organizations, and especially by those suffering on account of their beliefs.

Having had the privilege now to present seven Annual Reports, I continue to be amazed by the bravery of individuals from around the world who stand up for their beliefs, who advocate for religious freedom, and who refuse to be silenced by intimidation and violence. It is these persons whom we seek to serve and for whom this report is dedicated. It has also been my honor now, for more than 6 years, to work with an incredibly dedicated team of religious freedom advocates in the Office of International Religious Freedom. The successes we have seen over this period are a testament to their diligence.

Much work remains, and because of the knowledge that millions of persons are denied the right to believe, practice, and worship freely by their governments, the United States will continue steadfastly to pursue the establishment and defense of religious rights for all people everywhere. It is our sincere wish that our efforts, and those of others who labor in this cause, will give them a renewed sense of hope and, in time, contribute to the flourishing of this cherished freedom in all corners of the globe.
John V. Hanford, III
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom