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Full Text of Congressional Letter to Secretary of State Colin Powel Regarding List of Religious Freedom Violators

October 20, 2003

The Honorable Colin L. Powell
Secretary of State
US Department of State
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Powell:

We write urging the designation of Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC), as provided by the International Religious Freedom Act. Each has a well-documented record of “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” and are three notable and egregious violators of religious freedom that warrant CPC designation. As President Bush stressed in the National Security Strategy, “freedom is the non-negotiable demand of human dignity.”

Saudi Arabia represents possibly the worst situation for religious freedom anywhere in the world. In fact, every Country Reports on Human Rights Practices issued by the Department since 1999 and the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom have repeatedly declared “freedom of religion does not exist”in Saudi Arabia. Notably, this extraordinary and accurate assertion is not made for any of the current CPC countries, placing Saudi Arabia in a class of its own.

Islam is the official religion of the kingdom. Non-Muslim groups are not allowed to worship in public and risk being detained, imprisoned, tortured, or deported. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy and punishable by death. Other Islamic sects outside the Wahhabi order are forbidden and face significant discrimination and harassment. In legal proceedings, judges may discount or reject the testimony of non-Muslims or persons who do not adhere to the “correct” Islamic doctrine. Islamic religious education is limited to Wahhabi Islam and is reportedly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

Non-Muslim clergy are prohibited from meeting with co-religionists who travel to Saudi Arabia. Catholics and Orthodox Christians who require a priest to receive requisite sacraments are affected in particular. Non-Muslims are not allowed the freedom of expression and the distribution of religious materials such as Bibles is illegal. Muslims or non-Muslims wearing in public religious symbols of any kind risk confrontation with the religious police, the Mutawwa’in. The Mutawwa’in also enforce the Saudi law requiring women to wear the “abaya,” a black robe that covers the entire body, along with covering the head and face. Women who do not fully comply with these standards are harassed by the authorities.

Freedom of religion does not exist in Turkmenistan, either. Minority religious groups are unable to meet the nearly impossible registration requirements and the National Security Committee breaks up peaceful, unregistered religious meetings in private homes. Groups are denied permission to meet publicly and have no choice but to operate under the threat of harsh reprisals, such as home raids, imprisonment, deportation, internal exile, house eviction and even torture. Even the two registered religious groups, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Sunni Muslim community, are under strict state control with members punished should they dare to speak out.

Over the past year there was a marked increase in police action, systematically crushing non-state sanctioned religious communities. Seventh-day Adventists are reportedly forced to conduct baptisms in caves. In April, police banned Baptists from meeting in Balkanabad. In May, authorities raided and closed a meeting of Hare Krishnas in Ashgabad, and law enforcement officers broke up a Baptist Sunday morning service in Turkmenbashi. In June, authorities temporarily detained and heavily fined leaders of a Baptist church ministering to deaf meeting “illegally” in Turkmenabad, and five members of a non-denominational Protestant church in the town of Abadan were fined after a police raid.

In Vietnam, Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics and minority groups suffer intense persecution at the hand of brutal communist rulers. In January 2003, the Communist Party’s Central Committee issued a resolution calling for the establishment of Party cells within each of Vietnam’s six approved religions in order to foil “hostile forces.” While all religious groups in Vietnam face great restrictions and suffer some form of persecution, the Montagnard ethnic group has been singled out for persecution largely due to their support of the United States during the Vietnam War.

Reportedly, between September 2001 and December 2002, the Government of Vietnam forcibly closed 354 of the 412 churches in Dak Lak province and 56 pastors from the Central Highlands “disappeared.” The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UCBV), the largest religious denomination in the country, has also been declared illegal by the government with its clergy, like Thich Tri Luc, often imprisoned and harassed. Independent Protestants are subjected to particularly harsh treatment by authorities, reportedly including raids on homes and house churches, detention, imprisonment, confiscation of religious and personal property, physical and psychological abuse. Serious restrictions of the Catholic Church’s activities have caused a severe shortage of priests; Father Nguyen Van Ly and three relatives have been sentenced for lengthy jail terms.

The “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations” and government policies leading to imprisonment, internal deportations and torture in Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam certainly meet the criteria outlined in the legislation as “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Mr. Secretary, in the interest of advancing the cause of freedom, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, we strongly urge you to uphold human dignity by exercising your authority and designating Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam as countries of particular concern.

Sincerely,

Benjamin L. Cardin, M.C.

Christopher H. Smith, M.C.

Russell D. Feingold, U.S.S.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, U.S.S.

Saxby Chambliss, U.S.S.

Sam Brownback, U.S.S.

Frank R. Lautenberg, U.S.S.

Don Nickles, U.S.S.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, M.C.

Frank R. Wolf, M.C.

Robert B. Aderholt, M.C.

Elton Gallegly, M.C.

Eliot L. Engel, M.C.

Edward J. Markey, M.C.

Jerrold Nadler, M.C.

Dana Rohrabacher, M.C.

Jo Ann Davis, M.C.

Zoe Lofgren, M.C.

Carolyn B. Maloney, M.C.

Trent Franks, M.C.

Jim Davis, M.C.

Betty McCollum, M.C.

Joseph Crowley, M.C.

Nick Lampson, M.C.

Max Sandlin, M.C.

Richard H. Baker, M.C.

Shelley Berkley, M.C.

James P. McGovern, M.C.

Loretta Sanchez, M.C.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, Delegate

Lincoln Davis, M.C.

Karen McCarthy, M.C.

W. Todd Akin, M.C.

Elijah E. Cummings, M.C.

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