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U.S. Commission Decries Religious Freedom Violators

Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Muhammadiya Mosque in the Vahdat neighborhood of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
WASHINGTON -- A U.S. government advisory body says that Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are among the world's worst violators of religious freedom.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2013 report says the countries should be designated “countries of particular concern” by the U.S. government for “particularly severe” violations -- a designation that allows for arms embargoes and other restrictions.

The countries' violations are said to include carrying out or tolerating "acts such as torture, prolonged detention, or disappearances, or other flagrant denials of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons."

Iran and Uzbekistan, along with China, North Korea, and several other countries, have already been designated by the White House, although restrictions on Uzbekistan have been waived.

Restrictions based on the designations also expire in August if the Obama administration does not renew them.

The report also listed Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia among second-tier violators, where "at least one, but not all three, of the elements of the 'systematic, ongoing, egregious' standard" for violations is met.

The second-tier designations are meant to "provide advance warning of negative trends."

The commission, a bipartisan body, said it based its recommendations on "the standards found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international documents." The commission said it also worked with human rights groups, victims of religious persecution, policy experts, and U.S. officials and made country visits in formulating its findings.

This year's report covers from January 31, 2012 to January 31, 2013.

According to the commission, that period saw continuing deterioration of religious freedoms in Iran -- a trend it says is "likely to worsen" as the June presidential election approaches.

Alleged violations include continued imprisonment Baha’is, abuses against Christians and Sufi Muslims, and state-sponsored anti-Semitism.

The commission called on the U.S. administration to "continue to identify Iranian government agencies and officials -- including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President [Mahmud] Ahmadinejad -- responsible for severe violations of religious freedom" and sanction them.

In Iraq, the report said religiously motivated violence by extremist groups "continues with impunity." It also said the government in Baghdad last year "took actions that increased, rather than reduced, Sunni-Shi’a and Arab-Kurdish tensions."

The report blasted Pakistan for "fail[ing] to protect members of religious minority communities, as well as the majority faith." It described sectarian violence as "chronic." It also said Islamabad's anti-blasphemy laws and related legislation "foster an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism."

The three Central Asian countries listed among the report's worst of the worst were all cited for severe repression of nearly all religious activity beyond what is sanctioned by the state.

Prison terms for attending unapproved religious gatherings in Tajikistan, raids on religious communities in Turkmenistan, and state censorship of all religious materials in Uzbekistan were among the restrictions cited.

The report recommended making U.S. aid to Tajikistan contingent upon improvements, boosting U.S. broadcasting to Turkmenistan, and removing a waiver on penalties against Uzbekistan.

The U.S. waiver on penalties against Tashkent on religious freedom grounds has been in place since 2009.

This year's report said: "There is concern that U.S. policy on Uzbekistan prioritizes that nation's strategic importance as a key part of the Northern Distribution Network."

Among second-tier countries, the report decried the Afghan Constitution's "explicit fail[ure] to protect the individual right to freedom of religion or belief."

It highlighted the detention and imprisonment of "nonviolent religious activists" in Azerbaijan.

The commission said a religious registration law in Kazakhstan had led to "a sharp drop in the number of registered religious groups, both Muslim and Protestant."

In Russia, the report said that "various laws and practices increasingly grant preferential status to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church." It also cited rampant abuses in Chechnya.