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U.S. Report Says Religious Freedom On The Decline Worldwide

Rimsha Masih, a disabled Pakistani Christian girl accused of insulting Islam sits in a helicopter after her release from jail in Rawalpindi. She had been held on blasphemy charges for over a month until domestic and international condemnation prompted her release.
WASHINGTON -- Religious freedom is on the decline in many parts of the world, according to a new report from the U.S. State Department, which calls the trend “worrying.”

The 2012 International Religious Freedom Report also documents what it calls “a continued global increase in anti-Semitism.”

Secretary of State John Kerry released the annual report, which surveys almost 200 countries and territories, at the State Department in Washington on May 20. He told reporters that the "freedom to profess and practice one's faith, to believe, or not to believe, or to change one's beliefs [is] a birthright of every human being."

"When countries undermine or attack religious freedom, they not only unjustly threaten those whom they target; they also threaten their countries' own stability, and we see that in so many places," he said. "Attacks on religious freedom are therefore both a moral and strategic national security concern for the United States."

The report found that China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Central Asian countries remain among the world’s most difficult places to worship freely, but it also noted that many countries around the world have authoritarian leaders who restrict and repress religious thought and practice.

It found numerous examples where government officials act with impunity, abusing individuals for holding or expressing their beliefs with no judicial consequences.

In Iran in 2012, the report found evidence of government harassment and arrests of members of religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims and Baha’i Christians.

Authorities placed U.S.-Iranian citizen and Christian pastor Said Abedini under house arrest in July and months later, took him to Evin prison, where he remained in detention at year’s end.

In Russia, the government targeted minority religious groups with the use of "antiextremism laws" that restricted their right to assemble. Authorities also restricted religious minorities through detention, raids, denial of official registration with the Ministry of Justice, denial of official building registration, and denial of visas to religious workers.

Uzbek authorities jailed people for practicing any type of religion and beat them regularly in prison, the report says. According to the report, the authorities also confiscated and destroyed religious literature.

'Anti-Muslim Sentiment'

The report says many governments exacerbated religious tensions within society with discriminatory laws and rhetoric that fomented violence.

U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook said that the United States was calling on world governments “to protect the rights of all to hold, express, or change their faith without fear."

Cook also noted that anti-Islamic feelings existed even in Western countries.

"Anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination are evident in places as diverse as Europe and Asia," she said. "We call on societies and governments to foster tolerance and hold perpetrators of violence accountable."

In Pakistan, where blasphemy laws are sometimes abused to settle personal disputes and silence legitimate political discourse, the report cited the case of Rimsha Masih, a mentally disabled Christian girl who was jailed for over a month on blasphemy charges until domestic and international condemnation prompted her release.

In another case, two Muslims were burned alive. Sporadic incidents of mob violence against members of the country’s Christian and Hindu minorities were also reported.

In Turkmenistan, government authorities disrupted meetings of unregistered religious groups, and subjected individuals suspected of unauthorized or unregistered activity to searches, detention, the confiscation of religious materials, the seizure of private property, verbal abuse, fines, and beatings.

In Azerbaijan, the State Department report said that the government had placed restrictions on members of religious groups it considered "nontraditional," including Jehovah’s Witnesses and unsanctioned Muslim religious organizations.
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