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Annual U.S. Report Assesses Religious Freedom Worldwide

  • Heather Maher

The U.S. says Sunnis and non-Muslims face a "threatening atmosphere" in Iran.

The U.S. State Department has released its annual International Religious Freedom report drawing attention to the repression of religious expression, persecution of believers, and toleration of violence against religious minorities by governments around the world.

The report also notes those countries where officials protect and promote religious freedom.

Iran and Uzbekistan are designated "Countries of Particular Concern," which are defined as "countries that have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom," along with Burma, China, North Korea, Sudan, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the annual scrutiny of religious freedom around the world reflects the value America places on one of its core freedoms.

"Religious freedom is at the core of our nation, now as always," Rice told reporters. "We are a country founded on the belief that all men and women are created equal, that as equals we enjoy certain universal and inalienable rights, and that among these are the right to live without oppression, to worship as we wish, and to think and speak and assemble without retribution."

The annual survey places countries in one of five broad categories, ranging from countries where totalitarian and authoritarian regimes seek to control religious thought and expression, to governments that largely respect religious freedom but discriminate against certain religions by identifying them as dangerous "cults" or "sects."

Rice emphasized that countries that value democracy, human rights, and a robust civil society must also pay attention to how they treat citizens who choose to worship -- or to not worship -- in religions outside the mainstream.

"For nations that uphold the liberty and dignity of every citizen, they discover, as we have, that these highest of ideals are a source of strength, success, and stability," Rice said. "Nations must not only make peace with their neighbors, they must make peace with themselves. And that means respecting diversity and protecting it in law."

This year's report marks Iran's 10th appearance as a "Country of Particular Concern," and the State Department warns that religious freedom continues to deteriorate in the Islamic republic.

The report finds that, despite constitutional guarantees, Iranians who are not Shi'a Muslims face substantial discrimination; the government, it says, has created a "threatening atmosphere" for nearly all non-Shi'a religious groups, most notably for Baha'is, as well as Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, and members of the Jewish community.

Troubling Tashkent

Uzbeks leaves a mosque in Tashkent
Uzbekistan was first designated a "Country of Particular Concern" in 2006. This year's report concludes that Uzbekistan's restrictive religion law, passed in 1998, which makes it difficult or impossible for many religious groups to obtain legal status, continued to result in raids and arrests and imprisonment of religious leaders.

The report also cites what it sees as credible allegations that devout Muslims in Uzbekistan have been arrested on suspicion of membership in extremist groups. Some of those detained were simply conservative Muslims whose beliefs or teachings differed from those of state-sanctioned clerics, it says.

But the report also says that religious freedom conditions improved for the Muslim majority, and says the government generally did not interfere with worshippers attending sanctioned mosques.

The rest of the Central Asian countries fared better than Uzbekistan, but none were singled out for having a tolerant religious atmosphere.

Awaiting Change In Central Asia

In Turkmenistan, where the constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion, the report notes that, in practice, the government continues to restrict the free practice of religion. Despite small improvements in the status of respect for religious freedom, it says "troubling developments in the treatment of some registered and unregistered groups continued."

In Kazakhstan, the State Department noted that parliament introduced new draft amendments to the laws governing religion that would, among other things, establish more restrictive registration procedures, restrict publication of religious literature, and require local government authorization for the construction of a religious facility.

In Kyrgyzstan, a draft religion law under consideration would increase from 10 to 200 the number of members required for official registration of a religious organization, eliminate alternative military service for all but priests and religious laymen, ban proselytizing, and prohibit the conversion of Kyrgyz citizens to a different faith.

Tajiks pray at Dushanbe's central mosque.
The report singles out a draft religion law under consideration in Tajikistan that would regulate the registration and legal status of religious groups and associations, restrict religious education and literature, and limit other aspects of religious expression.

Conflict Zones

In Afghanistan, the report says that "the residual effects of years of Taliban rule, popular suspicion regarding outside influence of foreigners, and weak democratic institutions hinder the respect for religious freedom."

It notes that religious minorities -- including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Shi'a Muslims -- are sometimes harassed for being perceived as not respecting conservative Islamic strictures.

In Iraq, the main challenge to religious freedom continued to be "violence conducted by terrorists, extremists, and criminal gangs." The report also notes that "radical Islamic elements from outside the Government exerted pressure on individuals and groups to conform to extremist interpretations of Islam's precepts, and sectarian violence, including attacks on clergy and places of worship, hampered the ability to practice religion freely."

Lukewarm On Russia

Finally, in Russia, the report finds that the government "generally respected" freedom of religion for most of the population but has imposed some restrictions on certain groups. In addition, the government does not always respect separation of church and state and the equality of all religions before the law.

It notes some instances of religious violence toward Jewish and Muslim citizens, and cites evidence that the security services, including the Federal Security Service, treated the leadership and literature of some minority religious groups as security threats.

The 2008 report, which is available on the State Department's website, covered the period of July 2007 through June 2008.