Department Seal

U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


The Universal Human Family

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998 highlighted the core promise of the Declaration--a world where "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The most durable way to fulfill that promise, the County Reports noted, is the rooting of democracy in countries throughout the world. During the decade of the 1990's, the number of democracies has almost doubled--a development that has laid the groundwork for a dramatic increase in freedom and put within our sight for the first time in history a universal acceptance of human rights.

And yet, as the 1998 Country Reports also noted, "the world still has a long way to go" before it fulfills the promise of the Declaration. What remains to be done is documented in two volumes of continuing, massive assaults on the dignity of human beings. The lesson is clear: just as the Marxist state has proven no source of equality, so too is freedom no guarantee of human dignity. Respect for the intrinsic value of the human person requires the soil of liberty to grow and flourish, but the source of that value lies elsewhere. Its universality is perhaps best expressed in the first article of the Declaration: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

Although the universality of human rights has been widely recognized, human rights continue to be abused throughout the world. This chasm between word and deed is reflected in the persistence of practices that treat humans as objects or products to be used or eliminated according to the purposes of those with power. Those responsible for such practices clearly do not accept the realities undergirding and legitimizing the Universal Declaration itself--the universality of human nature, or the very idea of universal truth. According to the Preamble of the Declaration, the truth "of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

There is, of course, more than one understanding of the source of human dignity. Nonreligious philosophers from Aristotle to the present have explained the universality of human nature, and the ultimate origins of human dignity, in a variety of ways. Nor do all religious traditions agree on such matters, although many of the world's religions share common assumptions about human nature and human dignity. The following analysis focuses on some of those assumptions, and accepts that there are others. However, a central tenet of the following is that all human beings share an intrinsic worth, and that religious freedom includes the right not to believe.

Religious Freedom and the Dignity of the Human Person

At the heart of universal human rights lies a powerful idea. It is the notion of human dignity--that every human being possesses an inherent and inviolable worth that transcends the authority of the State. Indeed, this idea is the engine of democracy itself. It flows from the conviction that every person, of whatever social, economic, or political status, of whatever race, creed, or location, has a value that does not rise or fall with income or productivity, with status or position, with power or weakness. Every human being, declares the Declaration, is"endowed with reason and conscience;" reason and conscience direct us to the source of that endowment, an orientation typically expressed in religion. "Everyone," affirms the Declaration, "has the right to freedom, 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 or observance"(Article 18). Thus 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 protect religious freedom is to protect a human endeavor that directly addresses the foundation of human dignity.

Nor is the idea of human dignity simply a practical, utilitarian matter--an understanding of what is merely useful. Such understandings, if they only reflect the norms of a particular culture or a given historical period, can be abolished for the convenience of the powerful. However, when the concept of human dignity is understood as grounded in religion, it becomes a bridge for people of all faiths. It roots the concern for human rights in metaphysical soil and guards against its exploitation for more transient ends. Indeed, when so defined, human dignity becomes more than a human idea. It becomes a reality, a part of the natural order of things. So understood, all human rights--as expressed in international covenants--take on a more profound meaning. When people do evil to others, it is not simply a practical rule that is being violated, but the nature of the world itself.

To grasp a religious foundation of human dignity is to understand more fully the surpassing value of religious freedom and the need to protect it throughout the world. 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. It is the right to believe in something beyond ourselves, including a moral order that exists independent of our opinions and to which we must attune our behavior. It is the right to believe in the divine origins of human nature, and that every human being possesses a portion, a spark, an image of the divine.

The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act

Signed into law by the President on October 27, 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act (hereafter "the Act") provides the United States a useful vehicle for advancing the cause of religious freedom throughout the world. Grounded in and informed by the American experience, in which religious liberty is "the first freedom" of the Constitution, the law nevertheless does not attempt to impose "the American way" on other nations. Rather, it draws on the internationally accepted belief in the inviolable dignity of the human person and of the universal rights that flow from that belief. These rights are reflected in international covenants, which are, in turn, cited in the Act as key standards on religious freedom by which governments--including that of the United States--must be judged.

The Act mandates an annual report on international religious freedom, of which this is the first. It requires the Department of State to assess and describe in the report the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom in each foreign country, to describe U.S. actions and policies in support of religious freedom, and to provide specified information on a variety of topics related to religious freedom. It also prescribes an Executive Summary that highlights the status of the issue in certain countries, including those countries designated by the President as countries of particular concern.

The Act establishes the position of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom at the head of a new office of International Religious Freedom in the Department of State. The Ambassador's responsibilities are to advance the right of religious freedom abroad, to denounce the violation of that right, and to recommend--as principal adviser to the President and the Secretary of State--U.S. policies to achieve these goals.

Finally, the Act establishes a United States Commission on International Religious Freedom composed of nine distinguished U.S. citizens noted for their knowledge and experience in relevant fields plus, as an ex officio member, the Ambassador at Large. The Commission's responsibilities are to conduct an ongoing review of religious freedom worldwide and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress. It is mandated to issue its own annual report on religious freedom, due each year not later than May 1. The Department of State's annual report, due each September, is required to take the Commission's recommendations and its report into account.

The Significance of Religion in Human Rights Violations

One of the difficulties in writing about violations of religious freedom is identifying and assigning significance to the religious element of a predominantly ethnic, or "identity" conflict. In Kosovo, for example, Serb atrocities were visited predominantly on Kosovar Albanian Muslims. The key question for this report is the extent to which the religion of the victims played a part in Serb behavior. If religion were a significant factor, then the Milosevic regime is responsible for a particularly virulent form of religious persecution--alongside its other crimes against humanity--involving prolonged arbitrary detention, torture, mass executions, mass deportations, and rape. By the same token, if religion were not a factor, or constituted an insignificant factor, then religious persecution should not be added to the bill of particulars against the regime.

This is an issue on which people of good will hold strongly differing views. In the Kosovo case, many would argue that the predominant causes of the Serb campaign were political (Milosevic's usual tactic of initiating conflict as a means of retaining power), nationalist (the drive to retain a province central to Serbian identity and power) and ethnic (a determination to cleanse the nation of a non-Serb, unassimilated ethnic minority--the Kosovar Albanians). This view would hold that religion played an insignificant role in the conflict. It would note that Serb forces targeted Kosovar Albanians of every religion, including the 15 percent of Kosovar Albanians who are Christians (Orthodox and Catholic), and not simply Muslims. It would note that Muslims who are not Albanian (Slavs, Roma, and Turks) were not targeted. Some would add that religion does not play a significant role in the culture and identity of Kosovar Albanians.

By contrast, others argue that the ethnicity of the Kosovar Albanians is inextricably bound to their Muslim heritage, both in their own minds, and, more importantly, in the minds of their Serb tormentors. According to this view, any historical explanation of the 1999 Serb campaign that omitted religion as a significant factor would be inaccurate and misleading. This argument would assert that Serbs view Kosovo as the cradle of Orthodoxy; neither the methodical nature of their effort to drive Kosovar Albanians from Kosovo nor its ferocity can be understood without reference to the religion of the Serbs and the religion of most Kosovar Albanians. It would assert that the importance of religion in the Milosevic campaign was apparent in the destruction of mosques, and has been manifest in attacks on churches and Orthodox sites by Kosovar Albanian Muslims who have returned to their homes in the wake of the NATO campaign.

Serbia is not the only case in which religion is difficult to quantify as a factor in human rights violations. In many countries where there is violent persecution against a religious minority, there are also nonreligious factors at work--the ethnicity and separatist policies of the minority, for example. In Sudan Christians and practitioners of traditional, indigenous religions who are Africans are being persecuted by an Arab regime that is Muslim. In China Tibetan Buddhists who are associated with separatism are being persecuted by an atheist government. In this first annual report to the Congress, we have attempted to assess and describe the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom in each country report and to highlight some of them in the Executive Summary. In cases of persecution where religion is but one explanatory factor among many, recognizing that people of good will can assign differing values to the role of religion, we generally have noted that the persecution occurred in part on the basis of religion. Such wording reflects a judgment that the factor of religion is distinctive enough to warrant its inclusion in this report.


As the third millennium approaches, there is ample reason for optimism. The number of electoral democracies has almost doubled over the past decade alone. The implementation and protection of human rights, no longer merely an academic subject, has become a core element of international relations. Diplomats throughout the world report to their governments on persecution in other countries. The United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are but three multilateral organizations that devote substantial resources to the investigation and promotion of human rights. Institutionally, the international community has robed itself for battle against those who attack the dignity of the human person.

Such institutions, built and sustained by free and democratic nations, are vital in the war against persecution. Without them, there can be little hope for the triumph of human rights. And yet, as the following pages attest, abuses of human beings by those in power continue at a pace unacceptable in any era, certainly in our own. Aside from fulfilling the requirements of the law, this report and its successors have two longer-term aims. The first is to accelerate the incipient dialog to ensure that religion is a transnational vehicle of conflict prevention and post conflict reconciliation and not a tool of division. When it is understood as a source of universal human dignity, religion can offer hope for the victim, and give pause to the tormentor. So understood, it can engender both forgiveness and constructive remorse. The second objective is to signal unambiguously to persecutor and persecuted alike that they will not be forgotten.

Robert A. Seiple
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom

[End of Document]


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Revised last: 10-09-1999