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U.S. 'Troubled' By Lack Of Religious Freedom Around The World

  • Heather Maher

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says advancing religious freedom around the world is a core element of U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says advancing religious freedom around the world is a core element of U.S. foreign policy.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department says it is "troubled" by the lack of religious freedom in many places throughout the world and has again named Iran and Uzbekistan as "countries of particular concern" that severely restrict citizens' right to practice their faith.

The State Department's annual report on International Religious Freedom, which was released in Washington on November 17, identifies problems and progress in religious freedom in 128 countries during the period from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010.

At a press briefing, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that by issuing the report, the United States didn't "intend to act as a judge of other countries or hold [itself] out as a perfect example," but to show that Americans care deeply about religious freedom and consider it a basic human right.

"Religious freedom is under threat from authoritarian regimes that abuse their own citizens. It is under threat from violent extremist groups that exploit and inflame sectarian tensions," Clinton said. "It is under threat from the quiet but persistent harm caused by intolerance and mistrust, which can leave minority religious groups vulnerable and marginalized."

She cited calls by Al-Qaeda for violence against religious minorities in the Middle East, mentioning Sufi, Shi'ite, and Amadiyya holy sites in Pakistan that have been attacked, as well as a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad.

Iraqis mourn those killed in the attack on a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad on October 31.
The U.S. government is also distressed, Clinton said, to receive reports from China of government harassment of Tibetan Buddhists, House church [Chinese] Christians, and Uighur Muslims.

Clinton also noted that "several European countries have placed harsh restrictions on religious expression," but didn't cite any by name.

"These infringements on religious freedom strain the bonds that sustain democratic societies," Clinton said. She said she hoped the report would be a valuable source of information about the state of religious freedom throughout the world and would also serve as "a call to action."

Clinton said the Obama administration's increased focus on engagement with Muslims around the world is an example of how the White House is "advancing religious freedom around the world as a core element of U.S. diplomacy. "

Role Of Free Speech

But the report also objects to the growing trend by countries with majority or significant Muslim populations to lobby the United Nations for resolutions banning the "defamation of religions," saying such language could be used to undermine fundamental freedoms of religion and free speech.

Clinton said the United States "joins in all nations coming together to condemn hateful speech, but [does] not support the banning of that speech."

Iran has again been designated as a "country of particular concern" for efforts by its government to "severely restrict freedom of religion and reports of government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs."

"In Iran, government respect for religious freedom continues to deteriorate, especially for groups like the Baha'i,"
Fariba Kamalabadi, left, and Mahvash Sabet, two of seven Baha'is imprisoned in Iran.
said Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner.

The report says non-Shi'ite Muslims "faced substantial societal discrimination and government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shi'a religious groups, most notably Baha'is, as well as Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, members of the Jewish community, and Shi'a groups that do not share the government's official religious views."

In addition, it says, "government-controlled broadcast and print media intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities, particularly Baha'is."

Concern For Uzbekistan

The report also designates Uzbekistan a "country of particular concern," for what Posner said is a declining respect for religious freedom. In the past year, he said, "the government raided Christian and Baha'i services and many members of minority religious groups faced fines or other restrictions."

The report says the government's campaign against religious groups who can't satisfy the strict requirements for official registration includes harassment, detention, and sometimes lengthy jail terms for alleged members.

Specifically, it says, "the number of individuals imprisoned for membership in religious groups labeled extremist such as Nur, a Turkish Muslim group, increased," with an 114 Nur members convicted and sentence to prison terms of between six and 12 years.

The Uzbek government has also "continued to pursue the extradition of alleged members of religious groups it has deemed Muslim extremist from third countries, particularly from Russia," according to the report.

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