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U.S. Religious-Freedom Commission Recommends Egypt Be Listed Among Worst Offenders

Egyptian Coptic Christians demonstrate outside the state radio and television building in central Cairo on March 8 to protest the burning of a church after deadly clashes between Christians and Muslims in a southern city.
Egyptian Coptic Christians demonstrate outside the state radio and television building in central Cairo on March 8 to protest the burning of a church after deadly clashes between Christians and Muslims in a southern city.
By RFE/RL
A U.S. government commission has recommended that Egypt be placed on a list of the "worst of the worst" countries for religious freedom, for its record of increasing attacks on Christians and a culture of impunity.

The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom made the recommendation on April 28 to the Obama administration via its annual report, which it wrote after researching conditions for religious freedom in 28 countries.

The independent, bipartisan commission was created under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act and is charged with making policy recommendations to the president, State Department, and Congress.

As he released the report in Washington, Chairman Leonard Leo said his commission had over the past year "championed the rights of a wide range of religious communities: Uyghur Muslims in China, Shi'a and Ismaili Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Christians and Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan and Indonesia, Jews in Venezuela, Christians and dissident Muslims in Iran, Buddhists in Vietnam and China, and a range of indigenous groups and movements in China, Egypt, Iraq, Vietnam, and a number of other countries."

The State Department has already named eight "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) for religious freedom: China, Eritrea, Iran, Burma, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

The designation as a CPC can carry economic sanctions unless governments take steps to improve conditions. Leo said countries that carried this designation are "the world's worst violators of religious freedom."

President Barack Obama has not designated any additional countries of particular concern since taking office in 2009, which the commission said it regretted. Leo said he hoped the White House's newly appointed ambassador at large for religious freedom, Susan Johnson Cook, would decide to add some countries to the list.

Impunity In Egypt

This year, as last year, the commission again asked the State Department to add Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam to the list. And it added a new country -- Egypt.

The commission said it recommended that Egypt be named a CPC because of the "severe religious-freedom violations" that have occurred both before and after the mass protests that forced out longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February.

"In [Mubarak's] waning months, religious-freedom conditions were rapidly deteriorating, and since his departure, we've seen nothing to indicate that these conditions have improved," Leo said.

"This is especially true on the impunity front, where attacks on religious minorities, particularly Coptic Christians, but also disfavored Muslims, have risen."

Leo said the commission was calling on the United States, which has long-standing ties to Egypt's military, to redirect some of the defense assistance it gives Cairo to initiatives that would protect minorities and improve civil society.

Pakistan's Blasphemy Law

Pakistan's minister for religious minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed over his opposition to the blasphemy law.
The commission also strongly recommended that Pakistan be named a CPC for being "rife with attacks against minority religious communities, as well as members of the majority faith, and [the fact that] its laws penalizing blasphemy with the death penalty foster a climate of impunity."

Commission member Nina Shea said that in Pakistan, blasphemy laws are deployed against all members of religious minority groups and dissenters within the majority Muslim community, "and frequently result in imprisonment."

"Pakistan is arguably the most glaring omission to the State Department's CPC list, as the government is both responsible for and tolerates egregious violations of religious freedom," Shea said.

"While the Zardari government has taken some positive actions to promote religious tolerance and remedy abuses, mainly through the actions of the late Shahbaz Bhatti, it has failed to protect religious freedom for all Pakistanis."

This year saw the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who was Pakistan's minister for minority affairs and a longtime champion of religious freedom for all people. His death was attributed to his opposition to the country's blasphemy law.

His death followed the assassination in January of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, who also opposed the blasphemy law.

"While it is obvious that violations of religious freedom are a fundamental human rights concern, it is also true that they have strong national security implications," commission Chairman Leo said.

"For example, the recent assassinations of high-level officials in Pakistan serve to remind us how laws against blasphemy are destabilizing a critical U.S. ally, creating a climate of impunity by fueling hatred and violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims in the country."

Iranian Violations On The Rise

The commission again faulted Iran for continuing "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."

Iran has been on the State Department's CPC list since 1999.

Shea said that since the disputed 2009 presidential election, human rights and religious freedom in Iran had "regressed to a point not seen since the early days of the Islamic Revolution."

"Over the past year, religious minorities -- in particular, Baha'is, Christians, and Sufi Muslims -- faced intensified physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment,' Shea said.

"During the reporting period, the number of incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, harassing and threatening church members, and arresting, convicting, and imprisoning worshippers and church leaders, has significantly increased."

No Improvement In Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Turkmenistan was again recommended as a CPC because the commission found that "severe religious-freedom violations and official harassment of religious adherents persist" in the country.

The report notes that despite a few limited reforms by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's government, "the country's laws, policies, and practices continue to violate international human rights norms, including those on freedom of religion or belief."

Uzbekistan's Muslims are not free to practice, despite being the majority.
It cites continuing police raids and harassment of registered and unregistered religious groups under a repressive 2003 religion law that remains in force.

The government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov is again designated as a CPC by the commission for being what the commission called a "systematic and egregious violator of freedom of religion of belief."

The report says that the government "violates the full range of human rights and harshly penalizes individuals for independent religious activity, regardless of their religious affiliation." It criticizes a restrictive religion law that severely limits the rights of all religious communities and facilitates state control over them, particularly the majority Muslim community.

"The Uzbek government continues to arrest Muslims and repress individuals, groups, and mosques that do not conform to government-prescribed practices or that the government claims are associated with extremist political programs," the report notes, adding that this policy has resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of people, many of whom are denied due process and subjected to torture.

Russia, Kazakhstan On Watch List

Russia and Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Belarus all made the commission's Watch List, which is the next-worst category for religious-freedom violators.

Commissioner Felice Gaer said Russia again landed on the Watch List "due to the increasing concerns about limitations on religious freedom across the Russian Federation."

"Religious-freedom conditions in Russia continue to deteriorate. Over the past year, the government increased its use of antiextremist legislation against religious groups that are not known to use or advocate violence," Gaer said.

"National and local government officials also harassed Muslims and members of religious groups that they view as nontraditional."

Kazakhstan was named a country to be "closely monitored."

The commission did note what it called a "stunning triumph for the right to freedom of religion or belief" -- the January referendum in southern Sudan that saw citizens voting to separate from the north.

With that vote, southern Sudanese Christians and animists gained independence from what the commission called "the radical version of Islam" that the north had been trying to impose.

The commission noted another victory for religious freedom that came in March, when the UN Human Rights Council rebuffed efforts by some Muslim-majority countries to create an international blasphemy law.

The world body instead adopted a resolution against religious intolerance that excluded the infamous "defamation-of-religions" language of prior years.

written by Heather Maher

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