WASHINGTON -- The United States says religious intolerance continued to plague the world in 2011.
In its latest report
on religious freedom, the U.S. State Department on July 30 said governments in countries like Bahrain, Iraq, and Russia responded to conflict and to groups they considered to be "violent extremists" in ways that restricted religious freedom and contributed to social intolerance.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "the world is sliding backwards" on this particular human right, which she said was an essential building block for a peaceful society.
"It's particularly urgent that we highlight religious freedom because when we consider the global picture and ask whether religious freedom is expanding or shrinking, the answer is sobering," Clinton said.
"More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom," she added.
The U.S. report says blasphemy, apostasy, and defamation laws were increasingly used by governments last year to restrict religious liberties.
It also says countries like China, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia remain "chronic and systemic violators" of religious freedom.
The report singled out U.S. allies Afghanistan and Pakistan for being poor defenders of religious freedom.
Afghanistan's courts, it says, interpret Islamic law to punish non-Muslims for exercising their faiths.
Pakistan was criticized for issuing death sentences in blasphemy cases and for turning a blind eye to extremist attacks on minorities.
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson-Cook -- speaking at a State Department press conference highlighting the report -- said Russia and Uzbekistan both use national security as a pretext for restricting religious liberties.
National Security 'A Pretext' For Discrimination
Johnson-Cook said several Eastern European and Central Asia countries used registration laws to restrict the rights of religious communities.
"Russia and Uzbekistan invoked national security as a pretext for restricting the rights of some peaceful religious groups," she said."
"Other governments used registration laws to restrict the rights of religious communities," Johnson-Cook continued. "A number of countries -- including Belarus, Hungary, and several in Central Asia -- have rigid laws that make legal registration for religious communities difficult, which often meant unregistered groups were ineligible for state financial support or tax benefits and were unable to own property."
Clinton compared religious freedom to a "safety valve" that allows people to "channel their frustrations into constructive outlets."
She said when governments clamp down on religious freedom, they set the stage for conflict.
"When popular opinion supports restricting the rights of a minority, leaders should remember that they owe their people both their loyalty and their judgment," Clinton said.
"Leaders should lead, and remind citizens that when rights apply only to some citizens and not to others -- that is, when principles are subverted to power -- that sows the seeds for legitimate grievances and instability."
The report also noted a global increase in anti-Semitism and intolerance against other groups -- including Ahmadis, Baha'is, Buddhists, and Uyghur Muslims.