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World: Religious Persecution Prevails In Countless Countries

Washington, 26 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department says acts of religious intolerance and persecution occur frequently worldwide and that many people face deprivation and sometimes death for practicing their faith.

The assessment comes in the State Department's first report on global religious freedom.

The 35-page document, released Friday, was compiled by a special advisory committee of religious leaders and experts to help formulate U.S. policies promoting religious freedom.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright introduced the report, announcing that in accordance with one of its recommendations, she will appoint a senior coordinator to ensure that efforts to advance religious freedom are properly integrated into U.S. foreign policy as a component of human rights programs.

The report says that since Russia adopted a discriminatory law last year, local officials increasingly try to restrict activities of religious minorities.

In Europe the report says several countries, including France, Belgium and Germany, have set up commissions to look into cults and sects. It warns that these commissions should focus on investigating illegal acts or they run the risk of denying individuals the right to freedom of belief.

The report also notes that during the civil war in former Yugoslavia, people were systematically abused because of their religion. It says cynical leaders resorted to religious persecution to enhance their own power and position.

The report says that in Bosnia, religious affiliation continues to serve as a marker separating political and ethnic communities.

Turning to Iran, the report says the Iranian government practices "severe and sustained discrimination" against selected groups, including the Baha'is. It says 14 Baha'is were imprisoned last year and four were sentenced to death because of their religion.

The report found that "the climate of intimidation in Iran has also severely affected certain Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish communities, whose members have been victims of harassment, persecution and extra-judicial killing."

It says in neighboring Afghanistan, the Taliban has imposed a controversial interpretation of Islam that denies women education, employment and freedom of movement, and that people there are denied the right to practice religion in their own way.

In Pakistan, the report says the government has passed a "Blasphemy Law" which has been applied against Christians and Ahmaddiya Muslims

The report says in Saudi Arabia the state religion is Islam and freedom of religion is denied to all other denominations.

In communist countries in Asia, including China and North Korea, the government sets guidelines and permits limited freedom to worship but bans most independent religious activities.

The report is not comprehensive, assessing the situation in every country. It says some examples are listed to illustrate the range of problems of persecution and how to address them.

But the review warns that religious persecution is often an indicator that other fundamental human rights are at risk. It says religious persecution creates a climate of fear and intolerance, giving license to authoritarianism and sometimes radicalizing persecuted groups and fomenting instability. On the plus side, the report says religious leaders and institutions sometimes help reduce political conflict.

It says a powerful message for unity was conveyed in Bosnia last summer with the establishment of a permanent Inter-Religious Council of the four major religious communities.

In the Caucasus, the report says the Armenian Supreme Catholicos and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow worked with Muslim religious leaders of Chechnya and Azerbaijan to resolve conflicts.

The report also includes an assessment of religion in the United States. It says America is a truly multi-religious nation of great diversity, although 85 percent of the people consider themselves Christian.

But in addition there is a proliferation of new communities with increasing numbers of American Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and practitioners of Afro-Carribean traditions, according to the report.

It says America's concern for religious freedom comes from "the accumulated experience of Americans of many different religions who know that denying religious freedom to anyone threatens the freedom of everyone."