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U.S. Freedom-Of-Religion Report, By Country

In a country where the constitution provides for freedom of religion and designates the separation of church and state, a 1998 religion law restricts many rights only to registered religious groups and limits which groups may register. The U.S. report says "respect for religious freedom declined in several respects during the reporting period." It also says that "the government's campaign against unauthorized Islamic groups suspected of extremist sentiments or activities continued; alleged members were arrested and sentenced to lengthy jail terms. The number of individuals imprisoned for membership in extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir appeared to decrease for the second year in a row; however, the government appeared to shift its focus to Nur, a Turkish Muslim group, arresting at least 33 alleged Nur members and sentencing many of them to prison terms ranging from six to 12 years."

On the positive side, the report notes that the state "did not interfere with worshippers at sanctioned mosques and permitted the operation of other religious groups it considered mainstream."

Iran first was designated a "country of particular concern" in 1999 and was redesignated as such in January 2009. The report says that respect for religious freedom in the country continues to deteriorate. "Government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shi'ite religious groups, most notably for Baha'is, as well as Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, and members of the Jewish community. Reports of government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs continued during the reporting period. Baha'i religious groups reported arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention, expulsions from universities, and confiscation of property. Government-controlled broadcast and print media intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities, particularly the Baha'is, during the reporting period. All non-Shi'ite religious minorities suffered varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education, and housing."

The country's constitution gives Islam the status of the "religion of the state" and decrees that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." But in April 2009, President Hamid Karzai signed a controversial law limiting the rights of women from the Shi'ite minority. After international objections, Karzai agreed to suspend enactment of the law until the Ministry of Justice had reviewed and amended it. The review process was ongoing at the end of the reporting period."

The report notes that "though the government and political leaders aspire to a national environment that respects the right to religious freedom, the residual effects of years of jihad against the former Soviet Union, Taliban rule, civil strife, popular suspicion regarding outside influence of foreigners, and still weak democratic institutions hindered the realization of this aspiration." It says intolerance "took place in the form of harassment and occasional violence against religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, which continued to face incidents of discrimination and persecution and Muslims perceived as not respecting Islamic strictures."

Though the country's constitution provides for freedom of religion, changes approved during the reporting period have undermined religious freedom. The report cites a referendum that took place in March 2009, that approved a series of amendments to the constitution limiting the spreading and propagandizing of religion. It says "the Law on Freedom of Religion could result in a more restrictive system of registration for religious groups" and notes that "there were mosque closures as well as state and locally sponsored raids on evangelical Protestant religious groups."

The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The report notes that the government "generally endorsed these rights, but violence by terrorists, extremists, and criminal gangs restricted the free exercise of religion and posed a significant threat to the country's vulnerable religious minorities." It also identifies "radical Islamic elements from outside the government," who "exerted pressure on individuals and groups to conform to extremist interpretations of Islam's precepts; sectarian violence, including attacks on clergy and places of worship, hampered the ability to practice religion freely."

The report says that although the government "generally respected freedom of religion for most of the population, authorities imposed restrictions on certain religious minorities and did not always respect separation of church and state and the equality of all religions before the law." Vague legislation to counter "extremism" has had a detrimental effect on religious freedom. It goes on to say, "societal attitudes toward traditionally Muslim ethnic groups were negative in many regions, and there were manifestations of anti-Semitism as well as hostility toward Roman Catholics and other non-Orthodox Christian denominations."

The report noted that, "The Constitutional Council ruled in February 2009 that proposed amendments to the religion law were unconstitutional and on April 14, 2009, the president's Human Rights Commission (HRC) presented the National Action Plan on Human Rights for 2009-12, the country's first such plan. The HRC recommended, among other things, that the Ministry of Justice work with NGOs to publish annual reports on the status of religious freedom in the country."

The report lauded Moldova for the Ministry of Justice's (MOJ) addition of two new courses dedicated to religious freedom to training programs of the National Institute of Justice. It noted that after a July 1, 2008, "roundtable discussion supported by the United Nations Development Program between the government and religious groups, the government published on the MOJ website a guide to the laws and regulations that govern registration of religious groups and their component parts."

The State Department report praised Serbia for "a number of positive developments" including the acknowledgement by Assistant Religion Minister Dragan Novakovic that most attacks on religious communities were prosecuted as minor offenses such as disturbing the peace instead of as incitement of hatred, which carries more severe penalties. The report also notes that "in April 2009, Assistant Minister Novakovic visited a licensed Adventist high school in Novi Sad...and in December met with Jehovah's Witnesses' representatives in Belgrade, the first such visit of a government official to the group's premises. Local authorities in Mladenovac issued a permit to the Christian Adventist Church to continue construction of its house of worship, a project that had been halted for more than two years due to previous decisions ordering destruction of the building. There continued to be progress on restitution of religious property seized in 1945 or later."

The State Department report identifies Turkmenistan as a country that has improved in the area of freedom of religion. It says that despite continued problems, there were many small improvements during the reporting period. It says that "government promotion of the Ruhnama, the former president's book on the spiritual and cultural life of the country, decreased" and "the government continued construction of large mosques in each of the provincial capitals, as well as smaller mosques in a number of villages and towns. All groups reported an easing of tensions."