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In Many Lands, the Right to Worship Freely Hasn't a Prayer

WASHINGTON -- Few freedoms are as fundamental to Americans as that of religion, but as a matter of U.S. foreign policy, the fight for religious liberties around the world has been a relatively low priority.

That may change.

With the passing of the Cold War and its overarching questions of security, the fate of the world's faithful, particularly Christians, has begun to attract attention in this country. In part, religious and conservative groups have urged Congress and the Clinton administration to act.

Under orders from Congress, the State Department has completed its first comprehensive review of the treatment of Christians around the world, expanding its mandate to look at other faiths, including Tibetan Buddhists in China and the practitioners of traditional religions in the Sudan.

The report, which was released last week and includes 78 countries, cited Russia for an improved religious atmosphere since the fall of the Soviet Union but also criticized its parliament for passing legislation that would protect older denominations like the Russian Orthodox Church from competition from other religions. Last week, a day after the report came out, President Boris Yeltsin vetoed the bill.

The review offers detailed accounts of the discrimination, repression and, in many cases, violent persecution of people trying to do what many Americans take for granted: praying and reading the Bible. Here are excerpts from the report. -- STEVEN LEE MYERS

Murder and Mayhem

ALGERIA. Conversions from Islam to other religions are rare. Because of security worries and potential legal and social problems, Muslim converts to other religions practice their new faith clandestinely. . . . In 1994 the Armed Islamic Group, an extremist group that seeks to topple the Government, declared its intention to eliminate Jews, Christians and polytheists from Algeria. . . . During 1996 the GIA kidnapped and killed seven Roman Catholic monks in central Algeria, and the Catholic Bishop of Oran also was murdered at his home.

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA. In Bosnia, religion and ethnicity are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. . . . There were some incidents of inter-ethnic violence that resulted in damage to religious property. For example, in July 1996, a Roman Catholic church in the Muslim-controlled town of Bugojno was firebombed. It was reportedly the last Catholic church in the town.

BURMA. Adherents of all religions that are duly registered with the authorities generally enjoy freedom to worship as they choose. However, religious publications, like secular ones, remain subject to control and censorship. Christian Bibles translated into indigenous languages cannot legally be imported or printed.

Beatings and Bulldozers

CHINA. The Government of China has sought to restrict all actual religious practice to Government-authorized religious organizations and registered places of worship. . . . Many groups have been reluctant to comply due to 1/8their) principled opposition to state control of religion, unwillingness to limit their activities or refusal to compromise their position on matters such as abortion. . . . Some leaders of such groups were detained for lengthy investigation, and some were beaten.

CUBA. In December 1995, the Cuban Government issued a resolution preventing any Cuban or joint enterprise from selling computers, fax machines, photocopiers or other equipment to any church. . . . Government harassment of private houses of worship continued throughout 1996, with evangelical denominations reporting evictions from, and bulldozing of, houses used for these purposes. In the province of Las Tunas, neighbors of one private house of worship tried to provoke fights with parishioners, blared music during religious services and tried to pour boiling water through the windows during a religious service.

EGYPT. Christians face discrimination based on tradition and some aspects of the law, and there have been instances of persecution of Christians in Egypt in recent years. In addition, Christians have been the target of terrorist groups seeking to overthrow the Government and establish an Islamic state, and terrorists have killed dozens of Christians, as well as hundreds of other citizens, in the past few years, despite Government efforts to protect the population. . . . There were credible reports that in 1996 state security officers in Cairo detained, interrogated and, in at least two cases, physically abused several converts to Christianity.

GERMANY. Recently, a federal administration court in Berlin denied Jehovah's Witnesses the status of a "public body" on the grounds that the church did not offer the "indispensable loyalty" towards the State, because, for example, it refused to acknowledge public elections. . . . Scientologists, including American citizens, have reported discrimination and harassment in Germany.

INDONESIA. There are some restrictions on religious freedom, including a ban on atheism and some restrictions on the activities of unrecognized religions. . . . There were several instances of religion-related mob violence during 1996. In July several Christian churches were burned in Surabaya. On October 10, rioters destroyed 24 churches and a Buddhist temple on the East Java coast, to protest the leniency of a sentence given to a Muslim by an Indonesian judge for slandering Islam. In the course of the riots a Protestant minister, his wife and child and a church worker were burned to death.

IRAN. Non-Muslims may not proselytize Muslims. Muslims who convert to another faith are considered apostates and may be subject to the death penalty. Four Baha'is remain in prison under death sentences, convicted on charges of apostasy in 1996.

NORTH KOREA. Three Christian churches -- two Protestant and one Catholic -- have been opened since 1988 in Pyongyang. These appear to be the only active Christian churches in the country. Many visitors say that church activity appears staged.

LEBANON. Discrimination based on religion is built into the system of government. The President is by tradition a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies a Shi'a Muslim. . . . The amended Constitution of 1990 embraces the principle of abolishing religious affiliation as a criterion for filling all Government positions, but few practical steps have been taken to accomplish this.

MOROCCO. Islamic law and tradition call for strict punishment of any Muslim who converts to another faith, and any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert is illegal. Ordinarily, foreign missionaries either limit their proselytizing to non-Muslims or conduct their work quietly. In 1995, at least seven Moroccans were arrested, and in some cases sentenced to jail terms, for offenses related to their Christianity.

RUSSIA. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the overall climate for religious freedom in Russia has improved dramatically, and made possible a large increase in the activities of foreign missionaries. This has troubled some sectors of Russian society, particularly nationalists and factions of the Russian Orthodox Church. During 1996 and 1997, the Russian Orthodox Church used its political influence to promote official actions that discriminate against religious groups and sects.

SINGAPORE. The Government banned Jehovah's Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds that the group opposes military service, and its roughly 2,000 members refuse to perform military service, salute the flag or swear oaths of allegiance to the State. In July 1996, a 72-year-old woman was arrested and convicted for possession of banned Jehovah's Witness literature. She was sentenced to a $500 fine. She refused to pay and was ordered to jail for seven days.

Conversions and Slave Raids

SUDAN. Forced conversion to Islam of Christians, animists and other non-Muslims takes place as part of Government policy. The 14-year-old civil war between the mainly Islamic north and the largely animist and Christian south has claimed more than a million lives. . . . There are reports that many Christians are victims of slave raids and forced conversion, and that some Christian children have been forced into re-education camps where they are given Arab names and raised as Muslims.

©Copyright 1997, The New York Times Company

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