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U.S.: Religious Freedom Report Cites Problems In Iraq, Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (epa) The U.S. State Department has issued its annual report on how governments around the world are respecting the right of religious freedom. The report found problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and little improvement in the world's perennial trouble spots, from China to Belarus.

WASHINGTON, September 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- One day after U.S. President George W. Bush touted successes in local reconciliation in Iraq, the State Department said religious freedom is often a victim in that struggling democracy.

But John Hanford, the State Department's ambassador at large for religious freedom, said these problems involve more the country's fragile security situation rather than any deficiencies in the government's respect for religious freedom. In fact, he pointed to what he called the Iraqi constitution's "robust guarantees" of religious freedom.

"Religious minorities are vulnerable, sometimes due to their small numbers and lack of organization," Hanford said. "For the most part, people are getting caught in the crossfire. In the case of these minorities, though, there have been cases where it's clear that certain groups have been targeted. The real problem that we're dealing with is that, with the sectarian violence -- not necessarily focused on religious practice -- that at the same time religious practice winds up being affected."

Afghanistan faces issues of religious tolerance, too, the State Department report finds. It cites a constitution requiring all laws to be consistent with Islam, nearly three decades of war, a period of rule by the Taliban, and immature democratic institutions as allowing intolerance, harassment, and even violence against religious minorities and some reformist Muslims.

'Particular Concern'

The report cites eight countries as being of what it calls of "particular concern." They include Iran, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The document says they engage in or tolerate what it calls "particularly severe violations of religious freedom."

"Freedom of religion is ... integral to our efforts to combat the ideology of hatred and religious intolerance that fuels global terrorism." U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Iran is guilty of what the report calls "particularly severe violations" of the freedom of religious minorities.

"In Iran," Hanford says, "the regime is unrelenting in its repression of Bahais and has created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shi'a religious groups, including Sufi Muslims, some Christian groups, and members of the Jewish community."

Turkmenistan is less of a violator than its Central Asian neighbor, Uzbekistan, according to the report. Its constitution proclaims religious freedom but also requires all religions to register with the government and appears to try to control how Islam is practiced by bringing great legal pressure on its muftis, or Islamic leaders.

Signs Of Improvement

But Hanford said the death last year of leader Saparmurat Niyazov and the ascendancy of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to the presidency may signal an improvement.

"The government of Turkmenistan recently released the former chief mufti, who had been jailed for [a sentence of] 22 years," Hanford says, "and we're hopeful of additional reforms improving religious freedom."

One persistent problem that arises year after year in the State Department reports is the behavior of important allies. Saudi Arabia has long been what the reports call a "country of particular concern" because Islam, the state religion, is practiced very conservatively, and other religions are treated with disdain.

Hanford said the United States is particularly bothered by intolerant language about other religions in textbooks on Islam published in Saudi Arabia and distributed to Muslims around the world. He said the Saudis have assured Washington that these books are being toned down.

Problems exist in Europe, as well, according to the report. It's not surprising that Belarus -- some call it the last European dictatorship -- has a poor record on religious tolerance, granting privileged status to the Belarusian Orthodox Church and discriminating against Protestants. The report also cites anti-Semitic attacks that Minsk ignores.

Romania, Slovakia Also Cited

At least two European allies of the United States -- the former communist states of Romania and Slovakia -- also are cited in the document. Hanford said the State Department is working with their governments to improve religious rights.

"We're also engaged with our allies, as we are concerned about laws that effectively institutionalize discrimination against religious minorities," Hanford says. "Examples include the passage of a discriminatory religion law in Romania with a burdensome registration system, and the amendment to the religious registration law in the Slovak Republic that significantly toughens the already demanding registration requirements."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in releasing the report, pointed to the sixth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

"Freedom of religion is also integral to our efforts to combat the ideology of hatred and religious intolerance that fuels global terrorism," Rice said. "Tuesday was the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. As we reflect on the tragedy of that day, we are reminded of the true importance of this report, and we reaffirm our commitment to help us shed light on all countries where citizens are subjected to government censorship, hate crimes, discrimination, and violence."

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