World HeadlinesFriday September 10 1:47 AM ET
U.S. Criticizes Countries For Religious Intolerance
By Carol Giacomo
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States released its first annual report on religious freedom worldwide Thursday, concluding that much of the world's population lives in countries in which religious freedoms are restricted.
Many of the countries faulted, including China, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, regularly show up on the annual U.S. list of overall human rights abusers.
But the new report also criticized some U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for intolerance.
"Freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, the report determined, in an unusually blunt and sweeping finding about that major U.S. ally in the Gulf.
Although 144 countries are parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, "there remains in some countries a substantial difference between promise and practice," the report, covering the period from January 1998 to June 1999 and written by the State Department, said.
"Much of the world's population lives in countries in which the right to religious freedom is restricted or prohibited," it concluded.
Many nations claim cultural and historical factors for religious intolerance but "at the end of the day there is no good reason for governments to violate religious freedom," Robert Seiple, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, told a news briefing.
The report, based in part on an 18-page questionnaire completed by all U.S. overseas missions, was mandated by Congress and authorizes sanctions against violators of religious freedom. But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had made no decisions about sanctions or other next steps, officials said.
Religious freedom in the United States was not addressed. Seiple said the United States has "imperfections," but was not the focus of this assessment.
China is cited for persecuting Tibetan Buddhists, Muslim Uighurs and Protestant and Roman Catholics who do not belong to "official" churches.
In Afghanistan, religious freedom is "severely restricted," and the dominant Taliban, a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim group that controls most of the country, persecutes and kills minority Shi'as, the report said.
In Saudi Arabia where the government supports the Sunni Muslim majority, members of the Shi'a Muslim minority "are the objects of officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination," the report said, citing instances of arbitrary detention and travel restrictions among other practices.
Conversion by a Muslim to another religion is a crime punishable by death under Islamic law, it said.
There are six million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, including Indians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and Americans, and they, too, have been penalized for their religious beliefs.
In some areas, both Saudi religious police and religious zealots acting on their own "harassed, assaulted, battered, arrested and detained citizens and foreigners," the report said.
It observed that in Egypt, also largely a Muslim country, members of the non-Muslim Christian minority "generally worship without interference, but there is some societal and governmental discrimination."
In China, the report noted that the constitution provides for freedom of religious belief but in practice the government "seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of religious groups."
RAPID GROWTH OF SOME FAITHS
There are signs of increased limits on traditional Chinese religions, like Buddhism and Taoism, as these non-Western faiths have grown rapidly in recent years, the report said.
It noted Beijing's crackdown this year on the Falun Gong religious sect and cited "credible reports of abuse or torture of Buddhist monks and nuns."
The report also said that in recent years some local authorities have subjected worship services of alien residents in China to increased surveillance and restriction.
Concerning NATO ally Turkey, the State Department said "the military and the judiciary, with support from the country's secular elite, continued to wage a private and public campaign against Islamic fundamentalism, which they view as a threat to the secular republic."
Human rights activists and members of an Islamist political party complained that the government was increasingly enforcing a 50-year-old ban on the wearing of religious headwear, including head scarves for women, in state-run facilities, it said.
NEW LAWS ARE DISCRIMINATORY
In Pakistan, the report said "discriminatory" legislation has encouraged an atmosphere of religious intolerance, leading to acts of violence by extremists against members of religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and Zikris.
India initially played down a sharp upswing in violence by extremists against religious minorities and their places of worship and the response by state and local prosecutors to these events was "often inadequate," the report said.
Iran was faulted for trying to "eradicate" the Baha'i faith while Iraq was criticized for conducting a campaign of murder, execution and arrests against the Shi'a Muslim population.
In Russia, the report cited concerns about an October 1997 law which was intended to redress a very liberal loosening of restrictions that followed the collapse of communist rule.
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