A new report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warns that religious freedom across the globe is increasingly being threatened and oppressed by governments in human rights "hot spots."
In 2009, the group -- an independent U.S. government commission that monitors religious freedom worldwide -- surveyed 28 such countries and found evidence that freedom of religion was "being obstructed and trampled."
This year's list includes 13 "countries of particular concern," including all eight named last year (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan) plus Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
The commission makes policy recommendations to the U.S. president, secretary of state, and Congress that are aimed at improving conditions in what it calls "that small but critically important point of intersection of foreign policy, national security, and international religious freedom standards."
After researchers and analysts document the laws, practices, and policies in places that prevent people from worshiping freely and without fear of persecution, the group issues an annual report aimed at "exposing, countering, and correcting religious freedom abuses."
Cathy Cosman, a senior policy analyst at the commission, says the findings show that restricting religious worship has become an important tool for repressive governments to hold onto power.
"If one assumes that the governments are primarily concerned with retaining their power and remaining in office, then they have engaged in systematically restricting the public influence of civil society in various ways, and then of course also [restricting] the media," Cosman says. "If one thinks of other potential groups that [have] the ability to mobilize large numbers of people, it [is] religious communities that are more or less the only groups that are left."
The report identifies what it calls "disturbing" trends in threats to freedom of religion around the world.
It cites evidence of the "exportation of extremist ideology," as in Saudi Arabia's dissemination of educational materials that the group says "instill hate and incite violence throughout the world."
It also finds states that are persecuting political opponents in the name of religion under blasphemy and apostasy laws, such as in Iran.
And it documents several examples of state-sponsored repression of religion.
According to the report, in Vietnam, people are imprisoned for reasons directly related to their exercise or advocacy of freedom of belief or religion; the government of "Egypt denies Baha'is, Coptic Christians, and other religious minorities basic rights; North Korea bans virtually all worship and imprisons in its labor camps even the grandchildren of people caught praying; and China seriously restricts religious activities, church governance, and places of worship."
For the first time in its 11 years of reporting on religious freedom around the world, the group has called on the U.S. government to impose a visa ban on and freeze the U.S. assets of one individual: Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya.
The group says the action is justified by Kadyrov's "leadership the Chechen armed forces, which the European Court of Human Rights has found [to be] involved in severe human rights abuses."
Cosman says in former communist Europe and Central Asia, governments seem increasingly willing to try and gain influence over citizens' very thoughts.
"I think that this is an expression of the most Soviet impulses of the government of [this] part of the world, where they want to control what people think, and how they think," Cosman says. "And increasingly, they're acting on it."
She adds that, along with Russia, some Central Asian countries have recently widened the category of religious activities they feel justified in persecuting people for.
"The Uzbeks keep changing and expanding their definition of so-called religious extremism, so that now people who read the materials of a Turkish theologian called Said Nursi are viewed as engaging in extremist activities and unfortunately, that trend is also seen in Tajikistan and Russia," Cosman says.
The commission says it works closely with President Barack Obama's administration to make policy recommendations on how Washington can promote religious freedom through U.S. foreign policy channels.
But the White House did not officially accept the 2009 findings or named the specified countries as violators of religious rights. Neither did the administration of President George W. Bush between November 2006 and January 2009.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on RFE/RL Broadcast Countries
"In Afghanistan, conditions for religious freedom remain problematic, despite gains in freedom of religion or belief since the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001. The lack of effective government authority outside of Kabul and major provincial centers contributes to a deteriorating situation for religious freedom and other related human rights in many areas of the country. The government's inclination to accommodate traditional, restrictive views of human rights, specifically regarding women, was demonstrated in the controversy over a new family or personal status law for Shi'a Muslims. Nascent efforts at national reconciliation could potentially return Taliban or other insurgents hostile to international human rights standards to positions of influence."
"Harsh religious freedom conditions in Belarus continued during the reporting period. The Belarusian government still restricts religious freedom under its 2002 religion law. Authorities harassed and fined members of certain religious groups, particularly Protestants. Foreign missionaries, clergy, and humanitarian workers affiliated with churches faced increased restrictions, including deportation and visa refusal or cancellation. Close supervision of religious life is state policy under the religion law, and an extensive government apparatus has stepped up efforts to limit the influence of religion and the activities of foreign religious workers."
"The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused. During the past year, and particularly since the June 2009 elections, the Iranian government's poor religious freedom record deteriorated, especially for religious minorities, in particular Baha'is as well as Christians and Sufi Muslims, including intensified physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment. Dissident Muslims were increasingly subject to abuse and several were sentenced to death and even executed for the capital crime of moharebeh, or 'waging war against God.' A revised penal code that would codify serious punishments, including the death penalty, on converts from Islam remains under consideration by the Iranian parliament. Heightened anti-Semitism and repeated Holocaust denial by senior government officials have increased fear among Iran's Jewish community. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, members of minority religious communities have fled Iran in significant numbers for fear of persecution."
"In Iraq, the government continues to commit and tolerate severe abuses of freedom of religion or belief, particularly against the members of Iraq's smallest, most vulnerable religious minorities - Chaldo-Assyrian and other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis. Members of these groups continue to suffer from targeted violence, threats, and intimidation, against which they receive insufficient government protection. They also experience a pattern of official discrimination, marginalization, and neglect. In addition, there continue to be attacks and tense relations between Shi'a and Sunni Iraqis. Other egregious, religiously motivated violence against women and girls, homosexuals, and Muslims who reject certain strict interpretations of Islam also continues."
"Serious religious freedom concerns persist in Pakistan, where religiously discriminatory legislation has fostered an atmosphere of intolerance. Positive steps taken by the current government have failed to reverse the resulting erosion in the social and legal status of members of religious minority communities and the ability of members of the majority Muslim community to discuss freely sensitive religious and social issues. A number of Pakistan's laws abridge freedom of religion or belief. Blasphemy laws have been used to silence members of religious minorities and dissenters within the majority Muslim community, and frequently result in imprisonment on account of religion or belief and/or vigilante violence. The Hudood Ordinances, Islamic decrees predominantly affecting women that are enforced alongside Pakistan's secular legal system, provide harsh punishments for alleged violations of Islamic law. Anti-government insurgents espousing an intolerant interpretation of Islam continue to impose a harsh, Taliban-style rule in areas under their control. The government's response to sectarian and religiously motivated violence continues to be inadequate, despite increased security operations against extremists."
"The status of religious freedom in Russia continued to deteriorate due to several negative new policies and trends, particularly government use of anti-extremist legislation against religious groups that are not known to use or advocate violence. National and local government officials increasingly violate the religious freedoms of Muslims and groups they view as non-traditional by enforcing other laws, including those on religious organizations and non-governmental organizations. Russian officials continue to describe certain religious and other groups as alien to Russian culture and society, thereby contributing to a climate of intolerance. Continued high levels of xenophobia and intolerance, including anti-Semitism, have resulted in violent, sometimes lethal, hate crimes. The Russian government has chronically failed to address these serious problems adequately, consistently, or effectively. The U.S. government should urge Russia to reform its overly broad law on extremism and other laws negatively affecting human rights and freedom of religion or belief, so as to ensure that they are not used to limit the fundamental freedoms of peaceful religious groups."
"Religious freedom conditions in Tajikistan have deteriorated significantly over the past several years, as Tajik law and government policies place major restrictions on religious freedom. These restrictions primarily affect Muslims, but also single out minority religious communities. In 2009, the Tajik government passed a new religion law that codified some restrictions that had been informally implemented and introduced a framework for further restrictions. Also in 2009, a court ordered a Protestant church to vacate its building and its property was expropriated by the Dushanbe city government. Tajik authorities demolished several mosques in 2007, and in 2008 one church and the nation's only synagogue were bulldozed. Bans imposed in 2007 continued on Jehovah's Witnesses and two Protestant churches."
"Significant religious freedom problems and official harassment of religious adherents persist in Turkmenistan. Police raids and other forms of harassment of registered and unregistered religious groups continue more than three years after the death of longtime dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. The repressive 2003 religion law remains in force, imposing major difficulties for the legal functioning of religious groups. Despite decreased emphasis, the Turkmen government still maintains the former president's personality cult through the Ruhnama as a mandatory feature of elementary public education. Although the new president has taken some isolated positive steps, including the release of the country's former chief mufti, promised systemic legal reforms directly related to religious freedom and other human rights have not been made."
"The government of Uzbekistan continues to systematically abuse religious freedom and related human rights throughout the country. The government exercises tight control over all religious practice, and continues to arrest Muslims and close mosques that do not conform to government-prescribed practices or that it alleges are associated with extremist political programs. As of 2009, at least 4,500 non-conforming Muslims, including an increasing numbers of women, were estimated to be in prison, many of whom reportedly are denied the right to due process and subjected to torture. Official repression has extended to members of the country's small Protestant and Jehovah's Witnesses communities that until recently had been somewhat shielded from the government's anti-religious campaign. Uzbekistan has a highly restrictive law on religion that severely limits the ability of religious communities to function, leaving more than 100 religious groups currently denied registration."
written by RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher in Washington