Religious Freedom Panel Raises Alarms on Islamic Extremism

A U.S. government panel on religious freedom will raise alarms about Islamic extremism in Pakistan and rights for non-Muslims in Afghanistan in a report critical of key American trading partners and allies in the war on terror.

In its annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is also expected to renew its call for tougher measures against nations such as Saudi Arabia and economic giant China if they don't work to end religious persecution.

While the report — which goes to Capitol Hill on May 1 and is made public two days later — is not final and could change, commission officials interviewed by The Associated Press offered outlines of commission priorities, including concerns on Pakistan, Afghanistan and the mounting sectarian clashes in Iraq. The commission's positions have caused friction with some U.S. officials worried about any possible disruptions to important trade talks or anti-terrorism alliances.

The commission, an independent body appointed by the White House and Congress, has no policy-making authority. But it has claimed an increasingly high profile especially since Sept. 11, 2001, as religious rights sometimes conflict with other U.S. priorities. Officials interviewed by the AP, including commission chairman Michael Cromartie, suggested this year's report will not back away from those sometimes inconvenient critiques.

The criticisms do not compel any specific action from Washington, and many of the commission proposals for economic and diplomatic sanctions are ignored. Yet the commission's reports increasingly serve as diplomatic leverage.

"There are a few countries that really don't care what we think," said Cromartie, citing North Korea and Iran. "But, by and large, most of them are really quite petrified — actually to my surprise — about being" named by the commission.

"Religion and human rights have always been a kind of backwater of diplomacy," said Tom Farr, a former State Department official who is writing a book on religion and U.S. policies. "The commission struggles against this. It tries to push the State Department."

Currently, the State Department has designated eight "countries of particular concern" for denying religious openness based on commission recommendations, including Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and Sudan. Six other countries are on the commission "watch list," including Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

The commission was created by Congress in 1998 to give religious issues greater weight on foreign policy. Its nine-member board over the years has included a broad range of clergy members, activists, educators and Washington heavyweights such as current U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and Elliott Abrams, now a national security adviser.

Its backers — including an unusual cross-section of liberals and conservatives — see it as a clear-eyed observer that is not restrained by the diplomatic layers at the State Department.

But critics come from two directions.

Human rights groups often want a more activist approach that's far outside the commission's scope. Others, however, say the commission goes too far. They believe the commission's calls for new sanctions — and sometimes direct criticism of State Department caution — sends mixed signals.

A former ambassador-at-large for the commission, Robert Seiple, said countries are confused by "vinegar and honey" approaches between the commission and the State Department.

"Rights groups think the commission is too tame," said Michael Young, who served as chairman of the commission from 1999-2005 and is the University of Utah's president. "On the other side, people think the commission should be a good child and be seen but not heard. They think effective diplomacy is quiet diplomacy."

"The commission," he added, "best situates itself exactly in between."

This year's report may further test its ability to shape Washington's policy.

Pakistan is one of Washington's most crucial allies against Al Qaeda and its offshoots, but it also suffers from sectarian violence between majority Sunni Muslims and Shiites that's claimed hundreds of lives, including an April 11 bombing that killed 56 people at a Sunni gathering. The country's small Christian communities have also come under attack.

The commission has recommended "particular concern" status for Pakistan since 2002, but no action has been taken by the State Department.

With Afghanistan, the commission has been highly critical of perceived shortcomings in the country's post-Taliban constitution and legal codes that do not guarantee protections for non-Muslims. The calls should be amplified this year following the arrest of the Christian convert Abdul Rahman, who faced a possible death penalty before charges were dropped and he was granted asylum in Italy.

Cromartie said the new report will "express grave concern" about the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq, but declined to give details. The commission has urged for a special U.S. human rights envoy for Iraq.

The report in the past also asked for more targeted U.S. action against Saudi Arabia for severe limits on non-Muslim worship and its propagation of Wahhabism, a strict form of Islam that the commission calls part of a government-backed ideology "rooted in religious hatred and extremism."

China, too, has been sharply criticized for "systematic and egregious" crackdowns on groups including Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Roman Catholics who do not follow the state-sanctioned church.

"People who are working on quiet diplomacy say, `Well, the commission only points out the negative,'" said Cromartie. "Actually this is part of our mandate. Our mandates says: When things are better, we remove you from the list."