Bush spoke the White House on the 10th Anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act, which was adopted by Congress to spread religious freedom around the world. “Today, we remember those seeking religious freedom in Iran, where the regime’s anti-Semitism has provoked global outrage," Bush told Congress representatives and other delegates in the White House Roosevelt Room.
It was an indirect reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has lashed out at Israel saying the Jewish state was "heading toward annihilation," and who has questioned whether the Holocaust, which included the murder of some six million Jews during World War Two, really happened.
Bush also stressed that he wanted to remember “those seeking religious freedom in Eritrea, where approximately 3,000 religious prisoners languish in the nation’s jails,” including over 2,000 Christians. In addition he spoke of Sudan, where he said, “police have used tear gas to attack a Christian church, and where Christian leaders who met with a Muslim woman wanting to convert were beaten and detained.”
His comments the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor was seeking the arrest of Sudan’s President Umar al- Bashir, alleging he bears “criminal responsibility”’ for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Darfur region. President Bush also mentioned North Korea, where he said, “those caught practicing faiths other than the state ideology are imprisoned, and people found with Bibles can be executed.”
Bush also lashed out at Burma, also known as Myanmar, saying he remembered “especially the nation’s Buddhist monks, who have endured brutal raids on their monasteries, and suffered tear gas attacks and gunfire during peaceful protests,” against the junta.
He also expressed concerns about apparent religious rights abuses in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, where he said, “in the past members of religious minorities have been beaten and jailed.” However, without going into details, he said, there have been “recent agreements” which “give us hope that these abuses will not be repeated in the future.” Yet several rights groups have reported arrests and crackdowns on church meetings, and a ban on Bibles and related literature in the country.
In the Middle East Bush, cited Saudi Arabia, where, he said "The religious police continue to harass non-Muslims — yet where we also believe reforms pledged by King Abdullah can bring real change."
With the Olympic Games in Beijing underway, Bush said he would also seek “religious freedom in China." He said the United States will “honor those who press for their liberties — people like Uighur Muslims."
Bush also said he had been meeting "those who attend underground churches in China." And, he stressed, “we also honor the courage of the Dalai Lama, and the Buddhists in Tibet.” He said that last month at the White House he met Chinese dissident named Li Baiguang, a lawyer who has worked on human rights cases and is a ‘house church’ Protestant.
"For his work, he’s been repeatedly jailed and attacked. A few weeks ago, he was scheduled to meet with members of Congress. (However) State authorities blocked the meeting and detained Li on the outskirts of Beijing.” Bush said that the “determined man” has pledged: "I’ll continue to … seek justice for victims of rights abuses, and promote the rule of law in China."
Bush said he has made clear to his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao that, "So long as there are those who want to fight for their liberty, the United States stands with them." However Bush has come under fire for planning to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Human rights groups and opposition politicians including presidential hopeful Barack Obama had urged Bush to consider boycotting the ceremony, because of the country’s record on human rights and recent crackdown in Tibet.
In other remarks expected to raise eyebrows, Bush said Vietnam had made progress. "Vietnam’s government has reopened many of the churches it had shut down," he said. "And most religious groups report a decrease in the government’s oppression of believers." Yet groups, including the Montagnard Foundation Incorporated, (MFI) have reported that hundreds of predominantly Degar-Montagnard Christians remain jailed across the country.
There have been also reports of killings and beatings of Christians in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and intimidation of active churches elsewhere in the country. Bush made clear he realized the United States would have "to continue to work toward the day when all Vietnamese are free to worship as they so desire."
He also mentioned progress in other countries, including in the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, where he said the the nation’s chief mufti had been ousted and imprisoned for refusing to teach state propaganda as a sacred religious text. "Through efforts authorized by the International Religious Freedom Act, the United States pressed for the mufti’s release. In 2007, mufti Ibadullah pardoned and freed — he has since become an advisor to Turkmenistan’s Council on Religious Affairs."
Bush made the comments after an emotionally charged weekend when he told reporters about his sorrow over the death of former White House Spokesman Tony Snow at the age of 53. "Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of our dear friend, Tony Snow," on Friday, July 12, he said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Jill, and their children, Kendall, Robbie, and Kristi. The Snow family has lost a beloved husband and father. And America has lost a devoted public servant and a man of character," Bush added.
Snow, who was family-valued conservative, was seen by Bush as an inspiring personality. "All of us here at the White House will miss Tony, as will the millions of Americans he inspired with his brave struggle against cancer," Bush said. "One of the things that sustained Tony Snow was his faith – and Laura and I join people across our country in praying that this good man has now found comfort in the arms of his Creator," the president added.