Worldwide religious liberty

Religion | Although a State Department report found greater overall freedom, several countries bear watching
by Emily Belz
Posted 9/23/08, 12:00 am

WASHINGTON, D.C.-The State Department released its annual religious freedom report Friday, finding overall greater religious liberties around the world. The report indicated that countries imposed fewer travel restrictions on religious groups and permitted more building repairs and church attendance.

But all is not well in places like Vietnam and Jordan.

Vietnam has garnered attention recently for its government's position toward the Catholic Church seeking to regain a parcel of land. Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet has led prayer vigils over the property, which is illegal since prayer is only allowed inside a church.

In a press release Friday, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom criticized the State Department for its failure to include Vietnam, as well as Pakistan and Turkmenistan, among its list of countries enabling significant religious oppression.

"We saw a sort of change in Vietnam over the last few years that, in my experience, has been almost unparalleled in a two- or three-year period with a sitting government," said John Hanford, ambassador for international religious freedom, at a State Department briefing on Friday. "When I started in this position, you had forced renunciations of faith by the tens of thousands being forced, particularly upon Christians, in a couple regions of the country-over a thousand places of worship shut down, dozens of religious prisoners. Now those policies have been reversed."

The Vietnamese government has reopened some places of worship and licensed new religions, Hanford said. He added that Vietnam was not on the State Department's "watch" list because harsh oppression like torture is not taking place.

In the Middle East, Jordan, a relatively tolerant nation in the midst of many oppressive states, was reprimanded for aggressiveness towards minority faiths. Muslims comprise 92 percent of Jordanians, with Christians making up about 5 percent of the population.

In the last year, the government expelled 30 long-time residents of Jordan who were foreign evangelical workers. They allowed three to return on the condition that they "not proselytize Muslims," the report says.

"We've spoken about this with the Jordanian government and we hope the trend will not continue," said Hanford.

A Sharia court in Jordan convicted one man who converted from Islam to Christianity. The court found him guilty of apostasy, annulled his marriage, and said he was without any religious identity. Stories similar to this one appear throughout the report on Jordan's religious freedom abuses.

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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