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U.S. Releases Annual Freedom-Of-Religion Report To Promote 'Universal Value'

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the report is the "world's most comprehensive survey of religious freedom."
(RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government has issued its annual report card on the state of religious freedom around the world.

The report is mandated by the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act, which explicitly designates the promotion of religious freedom for all persons to be "a core objective of U.S. foreign policy." This year's report covered the period from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009.

At the report's release on October 26 in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it the "world's most comprehensive survey of religious freedom."

"This report examines how governments in 198 countries and territories are protecting, or failing to protect, religious freedom. It shines a spotlight on abuses by states and societies," Clinton said.

"And it draws attention to positive steps by many countries and organizations to promote freedom and interreligious harmony."

As in the past, the report criticizes Uzbekistan, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Eritrea, North Korea, and Sudan for violating religious freedom.

Those eight states are designated "countries of particular concern" for abuses of religious worshippers. The Obama administration is currently reviewing the designations, which can be accompanied by sanctions.

In her remarks, Clinton noted that the freedom to "profess, practice, and promote" the religious belief of one's choosing is guaranteed in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"I want to underscore that, because this is not just an American value. This was agreed to be a universal value," Clinton added.

She also quoted her boss, President Barack Obama, who spoke in Cairo this past summer in a major speech to the Muslim world. In that speech, Obama said freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.

"Religious freedom provides a cornerstone for every healthy society, it empowers faith-based service, it fosters tolerance and respect among different communities, and it allows nations that uphold it to become more stable, secure and prosperous," Clinton said.

Clinton also came out strongly against efforts by Islamic countries to bar the defamation of religions, saying the moves would restrict free speech.

The secretary said the United States "will always seek to counter negative stereotypes of people based on their religion, and stand against discrimination and persecution."

But she said she "strongly disagreed" with the idea of banning speech that offends religious sensibilities, saying, "An individual's ability to practice his or her religion has no bearing on others' freedom of speech."

Her comments come as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a 56-member bloc of Islamic countries, is pressing the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution that would broadly condemn the defamation of religion.

The effort is widely seen as a reaction to perceived anti-Islamic incidents, including the publication in Europe of several cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.