By Heather Maher|
The U.S. State Department has released its annual
International Religious Freedom report drawing attention to the repression of
religious expression, persecution of believers, and toleration of violence
against religious minorities by governments around the world.
Uzbekistan was first designated a "Country of
Particular Concern" in 2006. This year's report concludes that Uzbekistan's
restrictive religion law, passed in 1998, which makes it difficult or impossible
for many religious groups to obtain legal status, continued to result in raids
and arrests and imprisonment of religious leaders.
The report also notes those countries where officials protect and promote
Iran and Uzbekistan are designated "Countries of Particular Concern," which are
defined as "countries that have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe
violations of religious freedom," along with Burma, China, North Korea, Sudan,
Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the annual scrutiny of religious
freedom around the world reflects the value America places on one of its core
"Religious freedom is at the core of our nation, now as always," Rice told
reporters. "We are a country founded on the belief that all men and women are
created equal, that as equals we enjoy certain universal and inalienable rights,
and that among these are the right to live without oppression, to worship as we
wish, and to think and speak and assemble without retribution."
The annual survey places countries in one of five broad categories, ranging from
countries where totalitarian and authoritarian regimes seek to control religious
thought and expression, to governments that largely respect religious freedom
but discriminate against certain religions by identifying them as dangerous
"cults" or "sects."
Rice emphasized that countries that value democracy, human rights, and a robust
civil society must also pay attention to how they treat citizens who choose to
worship -- or to not worship -- in religions outside the mainstream.
"For nations that uphold the liberty and dignity of every citizen, they
discover, as we have, that these highest of ideals are a source of strength,
success, and stability," Rice said. "Nations must not only make peace with their
neighbors, they must make peace with themselves. And that means respecting
diversity and protecting it in law."
This year's report marks Iran's 10th appearance as a "Country of Particular
Concern," and the State Department warns that religious freedom continues to
deteriorate in the Islamic republic.
The report finds that, despite constitutional guarantees, Iranians who are not
Shi'a Muslims face substantial discrimination; the government, it says, has
created a "threatening atmosphere" for nearly all non-Shi'a religious groups,
most notably for Baha'is, as well as Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, and
members of the Jewish community.
The report also cites what it sees as credible allegations that devout Muslims
in Uzbekistan have been arrested on suspicion of membership in extremist groups.
Some of those detained were simply conservative Muslims whose beliefs or
teachings differed from those of state-sanctioned clerics, it says.
But the report also says that religious freedom conditions improved for the
Muslim majority, and says the government generally did not interfere with
worshippers attending sanctioned mosques.
The rest of the Central Asian countries fared better than Uzbekistan, but none
were singled out for having a tolerant religious atmosphere.
Awaiting Change In Central Asia
In Turkmenistan, where the constitution provides for freedom of religion and
does not establish a state religion, the report notes that, in practice, the
government continues to restrict the free practice of religion. Despite small
improvements in the status of respect for religious freedom, it says "troubling
developments in the treatment of some registered and unregistered groups
In Kazakhstan, the State Department noted that parliament introduced new draft
amendments to the laws governing religion that would, among other things,
establish more restrictive registration procedures, restrict publication of
religious literature, and require local government authorization for the
construction of a religious facility.
In Kyrgyzstan, a draft religion law under consideration would increase from 10
to 200 the number of members required for official registration of a religious
organization, eliminate alternative military service for all but priests and
religious laymen, ban proselytizing, and prohibit the conversion of Kyrgyz
citizens to a different faith.
The report singles out a draft religion law under consideration in Tajikistan
that would regulate the registration and legal status of religious groups and
associations, restrict religious education and literature, and limit other
aspects of religious expression.
In Afghanistan, the report says that "the residual effects of years of Taliban
rule, popular suspicion regarding outside influence of foreigners, and weak
democratic institutions hinder the respect for religious freedom."
It notes that religious minorities -- including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and
Shi'a Muslims -- are sometimes harassed for being perceived as not respecting
conservative Islamic strictures.
In Iraq, the main challenge to religious freedom continued to be "violence
conducted by terrorists, extremists, and criminal gangs." The report also notes
that "radical Islamic elements from outside the Government exerted pressure on
individuals and groups to conform to extremist interpretations of Islam's
precepts, and sectarian violence, including attacks on clergy and places of
worship, hampered the ability to practice religion freely."
Lukewarm On Russia
Finally, in Russia, the report finds that the government "generally respected"
freedom of religion for most of the population but has imposed some restrictions
on certain groups. In addition, the government does not always respect
separation of church and state and the equality of all religions before the law.
It notes some instances of religious violence toward Jewish and Muslim citizens,
and cites evidence that the security services, including the Federal Security
Service, treated the leadership and literature of some minority religious groups
as security threats.
The 2008 report, which is available on the State Department's website, covered
the period of July 2007 through June 2008.
Copyright (c) 2008 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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