China and India protest US religious freedom report

Uighur women wearing face veils walk on a street in Urumqi, north-west China. A senior official said last September that the custom of women wearing face veils is not a tradition of minority people in China's western area of Xinjiang or in any Muslim country, but is a symbol of extremism and backwardnessReuters

China and India have strongly refuted the findings of a US report that condemned violations of religious freedom around the world.

China was so angry it lodged a formal diplomatic protest after the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal body that defends the universal right to freedom of religion or belief around the world, condemned "systematic, egregious and ongoing abuses".

The report said China was violating in a "severe" way the religious freedoms of Muslims, Buddhists and Christians in particular. 

Hong Lei, spokesman for China's foreign ministry, told a news briefing that the United States continued to ignore the facts while it attacked China over religion.

"China is resolutely opposed to this and has already lodged stern representations with the US side. We demand the US side objectively and justly view China's religious policy and Chinese citizens' freedom of belief and stop using the religious issue to interfere in China's internal affairs," Hong said. "The US side should reflect more on its own problems and not always gesticulate about other countries."

On India, the same report said: "In 2015, religious tolerance deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased in India." It also said: "India is on a negative trajectory in terms of religious freedom."

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US commission have been at war since Modi was denied a US visa in the wake of a earlier report by the commission, in 2002. The commission had itself wanted to visit India this year, but was denied visas.

Vikas Swarup, spokesman for India's external affairs ministry, attacked the report.

He said: "Our attention has been drawn to the recent report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which once again fails to show proper understanding of India, its constitution and its society. India is a vibrant pluralistic society founded on strong democratic principles. The Indian Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens including the right to freedom of religion," Indian Express reported.

He added: "Government does not see the locus standi of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pronounce on the state of Indian citizens' constitutionally protected rights. We take no cognizance of their report."

Launching the report, US State department spokesman John Kirby said Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were redesignated "countries of particular concern". For the first time Tajikistan was added to the list as a country of particular concern. 

Presidential actions for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan were implemented. Application of presidential actions with respect to Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were waived "following determinations that the important national interest of the United States required exercising this waiver authority."

Kirby said: "These designations help us shine a spotlight on countries and conditions that require the international community's attention. Today and every day, as you know, we are committed to working with governments, civil society organizations, and individuals to achieve our shared interest in promoting peace and stability through, in part, the promotion and protection of all human rights including religious freedoms."

The report said religious freedom had come under "serious and sustained assault" across the globe in the past year with several countries are "plagued by extremism and religious freedom violations." 

The commission said: "From the plight of new and longstanding prisoners of conscience, to the dramatic rise in the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, to the continued acts of bigotry against Jews and Muslims in Europe... there was no shortage of attendant suffering worldwide."

It highlighted religious freedom violations in more than 30 countries, including China, Sudan, North Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, and urged the Department of State to re-designate China's government as a top-tier violator.

In China, the report said the communist government had "stepped up its persecution of religious groups deemed a threat to the state's supremacy and maintenance of a 'socialist society'. Christian communities have borne a significant brunt of the oppression, with numerous churches bulldozed and crosses torn down".

In India, it said: "Minority communities, especially Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, experienced numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence, largely at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups."