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Tuesday September 5     3:59 PM ET

U.S. Blasts China, Others for Persecution

By Jonathan Wright

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States, invoking U.N. declarations and its own tradition of religious freedom, on Tuesday blasted China, Sudan, Afghanistan and others for persecuting people for their religious faith and practices.

In its second report on how free people are to practice their beliefs in 194 states, the State Department also rebuked some allies, including Saudi Arabia, Germany and France.

Beijing's crackdown on Falun Gong spiritual practitioners provoked some of the harshest criticism in the report, mandated by Congress under a 1998 law which gave the U.S. government a variety of punishment options, including sanctions.

Last year the U.S. government chose not to impose additional sanctions on countries it designated as being of particular concern for their religious intolerance -- China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar and Sudan.

This year U.S. officials say they do not expect any significant change in that list, a revised version of which special ambassador Robert Seiple will present to congressional committees on Thursday.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, presenting the report to the media in New York, said much of the report made ``grim reading''. ``The sad truth is that religious intolerance remains far too common in far too many places,'' she added.

She said Americans had always believed that religious freedom strengthened nations and enriched their peoples -- a belief that has since become ``a shared aspiration and obligation of the entire international community''.

The report said the Chinese government's respect for religious freedom had deteriorated during the past year as the authorities imposed new restrictions, closed houses of worship and actively persecuted members of some unregistered groups.

Covered In Bruises

``It was a tough year last year in China,'' said Seiple, the U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom.

``We saw the beginning of the attacks on Falun Gong. We saw the legislation ... that essentially identified 14 groups, including Falun Gong -- that gave enormous power to local and state officials to crack down,'' he added.

As an example, he cited the case of an unnamed 60-year-old female Falun Gong practitioner who died in custody and whose body was covered in bruises, with dried blood in her ears, eye and nose and all of her teeth broken.

``We have one credible report that says she was made to run outside in the snow with her shoes off until she dropped. I don't know what the right words are to describe that kind of inhumane, brutal treatment of people,'' he added.

Asked to explain Beijing's motives, he said: ``The China government is concerned about things they don't understand, things they can't control and things that have an external influence. They will talk about it in terms of stability but it's basically control.''

On Afghanistan, the report said the fundamentalist Taliban who run most of the country severely restricted religious freedom and persecuted the Shi'ite Muslim minority.

In Sudan, the government treated Islam as a state religion and restricted non-Muslims. Khartoum and its allies conducted indiscriminate bombings and other abuses in a civil war with rebels in the mainly Christian or animist south, it said.

In Iran, Baha'is, Jews, Christians and Sufi Muslims reported imprisonment and other acts of harassment. Conversion from Islam could be punishable by death, the report said.

In Iraq, where the Sunni Arabs minority dominates over the Shi'a Arab majority, the report cited several incidents in 1999 of security forces killing and injuring congregants protesting closures of Shi'a mosques.

Discrimination Against Scientology

Rulers of Myanmar, or Burma as it was known before a military coup and as it is still known by the U.S. government, presided over laws which allowed for restrictions on religious freedom. Authorities repressed efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom, it added.

Some of the hundreds of pages of text concentrated on states the U.S. government says do not fulfill a covenant signed by 144 nations acknowledging the right to ``have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice''.

It accused Germany of encouraging discrimination against members of the Church of Scientology, which enjoys tax-free status in the United States.

Some German officials believed Scientology was a money-making scheme rather than a religion and government procedures sometimes screened out its members, it said.

In France, a 1996 law labeling 173 groups as sects included organizations which were ``merely unfamiliar or unpopular,'' some of whose members continued to allege discrimination, it added.

In February, France accused Washington of being too lax on cults and unfairly blaming France for its harsher stance.

One bright spot on the religious freedom spectrum was Azerbaijan, where the U.S. ambassador helped persuade President Haydar Aliyev to improve the status of religious minorities.

The Azeri authorities have rescinded deportation orders against clergy, allowed many religious groups to register for the first time and reinstated some factory workers, it said.

The report did not analyze how religious freedom was respected at home but acknowledged followers of Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and indigenous American religions had been persecuted in the past.

``But today, at the dawn of the third millennium, religions are flourishing in the United States, their respective traditions enriching not only their own adherents, but American public policy as well,'' it said.

The report is available on the Internet through the State Department's Web site

©Copyright 2000, Reuters

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