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U.S. religious-freedom commission: Monitor Venezuela, Cuba
Regina Linskey
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Sunday, May 3, 2009
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WASHINGTON (CNS)—A U.S. government commission has recommended that President Barack Obama's administration place Venezuela and Cuba among the countries that should be monitored closely for their violations of religious freedom.
In its annual report, released May 1 in Washington, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also recommended that 13 countries -- including Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan -- be designated as "countries of particular concern." This designation is reserved for countries with the most egregious violations of religious freedom and for governments that tolerate such abuses.
The commission, an independent body, makes its recommendations to the president, secretary of state and Congress.
During the press conference to release the report, Talal Eid, an imam from Boston and a member of the commission, said Venezuela has steadily increased its tolerance of abuses against Catholics, Jews and U.S.-based Protestant groups in the country. Although there are no official restrictions against religious freedom, he said, the Venezuelan government's "strong rhetoric" and impunity have created a "hostile environment" for Catholic and Jewish citizens.
Venezuela's Catholic bishops have denounced the policies of President Hugo Chavez, saying they concentrate too much power in the presidency and violate democratic principles.
In its recommendation that Cuba be put on the watch list, the commission said "religious belief and practice continue to be tightly controlled" in the Caribbean nation.
For the first time since its creation in 1998, the commission recommended that Somalia be placed on the U.S. government's watch list.
"Somalia has no universally recognized or enforced constitution and no legal provision for the protection of religious freedom or other human rights," the report said. It added that human rights, including religious rights, "are circumscribed by insurgents, warlords, self-appointed officials, local authorities and prevailing societal attitudes."
This lawlessness in Somalia and the terrorist organization al-Shabaad have contributed to the implementation of a strict interpretation of Islam "reminiscent of the Taliban," it said, referring to the extremist Islamic movement with adherents in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The commission recommended that Iraq be designated as a country of particular concern.
"In Iraq, the government continues to commit and tolerate severe abuses of freedom of religion or belief, particularly against the members of Iraq's smallest, most vulnerable religious minorities" such as Chaldean Catholics and other non-Muslims, the commission said in its report.
At the press conference, commission member Nina Shea said forced conversions and forced marriages continued in Iraq in 2008 and 2009. Although overall violence in Iraq is down, she said, religious freedom in Iraq has not been restored.

India was not included in this year's report. Commission members said they would travel to India in June to investigate the Hindu extremist violence against Christians in Orissa state.

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