WASHINGTON -- The United States has singled out Iran, Uzbekistan, and China as among the worst violators of religious rights -- countries where it says abuses are "egregious, ongoing, and systematic."
The designations are made in the State Department's latest "Report on International Religious Freedom," which identifies widespread challenges in its survey of nearly 200 countries.
The stated goal of the Congressionally mandated report is to "bear witness to those who are persecuted because of their faith and shine a light on governments and societies that promote or tolerate such abuses."
In unveiling this year's report -- which spans July to December 2010 -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said state-sponsored repression of religious rights marginalizes vulnerable populations, emboldens extremists, promotes and sectarian violence, thereby undermining a society's stability.
On the other hand, she said, government respect for religious freedom aids security and prosperity.
"When governments respect religious freedom, when they work with civil society to promote mutual respect, or when they prosecute acts of violence against members of religious minorities, they can help turn down the temperature," Clinton said. "They can foster a public aversion to hateful speech without compromising the right to free expression. In doing so, they create a climate of tolerance that helps make a country more stable, more secure, and more prosperous."
The report identifies eight countries -- including Iran, Uzbekistan, China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia -- as "Countries of Particular Concern."
The designation is applied to countries that have "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom," and where the abuses are "egregious, ongoing, and systematic."
It also allows the State Department to initiate sanctions against those so named.
Clinton said that in Iran, authorities continue to repress Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, Jews, Baha'is, Sunnis, Ahmadis, and other religious minority groups.
The top U.S. diplomat also noted that threats to religious expression do not always come from governments.
She cited a September 12 attack in Iraq that appears to have had sectarian roots.
"Just yesterday we heard reports that gunmen, masquerading as security officers, waylaid a bus of Shi'a pilgrims traveling throughout western Iraq. The women were abandoned by the side of the road, but the 22 men were shot and their bodies left in the middle of the desert. This sort of hateful, senseless violence has no aim other than to undermine the fabric of peaceful society."
Michael Posner, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for democracy and human rights, also spoke at the report's release.
He said Uzbekistan had been named a "Country of Particular Concern" for reasons that include, among others, the fact that it is illegal to proselytize in the country and "dangerous for a Muslim to even discuss religious issues outside of state-sanctioned mosque."
The report also notes China's continuing crackdown on Tibetan Buddhists, Muslim Uyghurs, and other minorities.
Beyond the worst offenders, the report identifies nations including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as facing significant challenges in upholding religious freedoms.
According to the report, religious minorities continue to be persecuted in Pakistan through anti-blasphemy laws.
The report also noted the continuing plight of Iraqi Christians and the first case in Russia of the government bringing charges against individuals in possession of banned religious literature.
Clinton also warned that recent popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa had exposed religious and ethnic minorities to new dangers, raising the specter of sectarian strife:
"The people of the region have taken exciting first steps toward democracy, but if they hope to consolidate their gains, they cannot trade one form of repression for another," Clinton said.
The report also outlines steps the U.S. government has taken to promote religious freedoms around the world.
Posner conceded that in countries like Iran, which does not have diplomatic relations with Washington, the task is particularly difficult.
He said the report itself is one of the tools the United States can use.
"We raise these issues [and] we continue raising these issues," Posner said. "We have, obviously, a difficult relationship with that government [as with] North Korea [and] other places that are on the list, but I think it is, again, important for us to be clear about the facts [and] to hold every government to the same standard. It does reinforce people in those societies who understand and know that the United States government is listening and paying attention."
Other trends cited by the report include anti-Muslim sentiment in "many parts of Europe" and expanding restrictions on Muslim religious attire.
The report also cited an increase in anti-Semitic actions and accusations "on every continent in the last year."
written by Richard Solash based on RFE/RL and agency reports
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