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In a rare criticism of Israel, the report noted that non-Jewish citizens there, chiefly Muslims, Druze and Christians, remain subject to "various forms of discrimination, some of which has a strong religious dimension."

World -

U.S. Report Says Muslim States Low on Religious Freedom
Tue Oct 8,12:26 PM ET
Jim Lobe,Inter Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct 7 (IPS) - The U.S. State Department on Monday accused several Muslim states, as well as China, of denying religious freedom to their citizens and discriminating against religious minorities.

In its fourth annual report on religious persecution, Washington pointed out Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and accused remaining Communist states, including Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea (news - web sites), of similar offences.

It also noted serious problems in Pakistan, Sudan, India, Central Asia, and Nigeria, among other states.

In a rare criticism of Israel, the report noted that non-Jewish citizens there, chiefly Muslims, Druze and Christians, remain subject to "various forms of discrimination, some of which has a strong religious dimension."

Israel's closure policy in the occupied territories over the past year has also prevented many Palestinians from reaching their places of worship, it added.

In releasing the report, John Hanford III, U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, stressed that religious freedom was a potent weapon with which to "fight the war on terrorism."

"The (September 11, 2001) attacks by al-Qaeda highlighted the reality that people can and do exploit religion for terrible purposes, in some cases manipulating and destroying other human beings as mere instruments in the process," says the report's introduction.

"Where governments protect religious freedom, and citizens value it as a social good, religious persecution and religion-based violence find no warrant," it added, noting that such protections were essential to avoid a potential "clash of civilizations."

But at least one Muslim organization here said that the United States has itself fallen short in this area since the September 11 attacks.

"It would be very interesting to see what the authors of this report would say if they were to look at the United States," said Jason Erb, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

"While there is not institutionalized discrimination, there's definitely a high tolerance for discrimination (against Muslims) within the country right now, usually through religious profiling."

The report is mandated under a law approved by Congress in 1998 after a lengthy and sometimes controversial campaign led mostly by lawmakers associated with the Christian Right upset about reports of growing persecution against Christians in China, India and Russia, as well as a number of Muslim countries.

Their original bill, which included far-reaching and mandatory economic sanctions against offending governments, was targeted primarily at those regimes. But in the face of strong opposition from the administration of former president Bill Clinton and corporate interests with major investments in China and key Arab oil-exporting countries, the bill was significantly watered down.

The president, for example, is not obliged to impose sanctions against any of the countries named as worst offenders in the report. But in coming weeks, the Bush administration could use the law to single out "countries of particular" concern and impose sanctions against them.

The report classifies abusive governments into five categories, ranging from totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that try to control religious belief or practice, to those, including some European governments, accused of stigmatizing certain religions by associating them with dangerous "cults" or "sects."

In the first category, the report named Burma, China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. No significant improvements were noted in any of these countries' policies toward religion during the past year, it said.

But the situation in Afghanistan (news - web sites), which had been included on the same list the preceding three years, improved significantly as a result of the fall of the Taliban regime last December, said the report, which credited the new, U.S.-backed interim government's commitment to religious tolerance.

The second category of abusive governments--in which Islamic regimes were especially featured--included those that showed hostility toward minority or non-approved religions. These included Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

"Baha'is, Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, and Sufi Muslims reported imprisonment, harassment or intimidation based on their religious beliefs" in Iran, said the report, which also noted the imprisonments of journalists and publishers of reformist newspapers on charges of "insulting Islam" or "calling into question the Islamic foundations of the Republic."

The report accused Iraq's Sunni Muslim leaders of pursuing "systematic and vicious policies against the Shi'as," the country's largest religious group, as well as abuses against Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, while in Saudi Arabia, "freedom of religion does not exist," it said.

In Pakistan, "the government failed to protect the rights of religious minorities, due both to public policy and to its unwillingness to take action against societal forces hostile to those that practice a different faith," the report found.

It pointed especially to continued violence against the Shi'a and Ahmadi minorities, as well as several lethal attacks on Christian churches and agencies following the Taliban's ouster from Afghanistan.

The report also listed eight countries where the state has generally neglected the problem of discrimination and harassment of minorities by non-official entities or local law enforcement officials. Violators in this category included Bangladesh, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria. It singled out Egypt for having improved its treatment of minority Christian Copts over the past year.

The fourth category included states that enacted discriminatory laws or pursued policies that disadvantage certain religions. The report named Brunei, Eritrea, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Jordan, Malaysia, Moldova, Russia and Turkey in this connection.

Some of the abuses included in the third and fourth categories and even in the first group - such as police surveillance or unofficial harassment of minorities - could be applied to problems faced by Muslims in the United States, particularly since September 11, according to CAIR's Erb.

"We have a grave concern that all Muslims are now viewed as a security threat based on the acts of a few, and policies enacted since September 11 certainly had had the effect of stigmatizing all Muslims, particularly immigrants from Muslim countries," he noted.

He cited "fingerprinting visitors from Muslim countries; interviews of Muslim immigrants where they have often been asked questions about their religious practices; and the fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI (news - web sites)) appears to be infiltrating mosques in order to engage in surveillance of activity that should be protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which guarantees religious freedom)."

"Abuses here certainly aren't as grave as in many countries cited in the report, but there are certainly parallels that are interesting to note," Erb added.

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