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|The report also cites Brunei, Eritrea, Israel, Jordan, Malaysia, Moldova, Russia and Turkey as countries which have discriminatory legislation or policies.
U.S. Sees Improvement in Religious Freedom Abroad
Mon Oct 7,12:32 PM ET
By Jonathan Wright
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States, in its annual report on religious freedom around the world, found improvements in Afghanistan ( news - web sites), Egypt, Laos and parts of southeastern Europe but little change in countries, such as China, where religious worship is most severely restricted.
It criticized state and local government officials in India for failing to protect Muslims from Hindu fundamentalists but did not change India's status as an offender.
The U.S. official responsible for the report said Saudi Arabia could be under consideration for inclusion on the blacklist of "countries of particular concern," which now includes China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea ( news - web sites) and Sudan.
The report issued on Monday by the State Department, available on the Internet at www.state.gov/g/rls/irf/2002, names the same six countries as in 2001 -- China, Cuba, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea and Vietnam -- as victims of totalitarian or authoritarian attempts to control religious belief or practice.
Another category of offenders, countries where the state is hostile toward minority or nonapproved religions, also remains unchanged from last year, listing Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The State Department prepares the Report on International Religious Freedom to comply with a law passed in 1998.
In coming weeks the Bush administration will pick out "countries of particular concern" and say what economic or diplomatic sanctions it intends to impose on them.
Saudi Arabia, where the State Department says religious freedom does not exist, has never been on that list, apparently because of its close alliance with the United States.
But John Hanford, U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, said on Monday that U.S. allies that are "on the cusp" might end up on the blacklist.
Asked why the State Department has spared Saudi Arabia for the past three reports, he said, "This is something we are going to have to consider very seriously."
But the ambassador said that, compared with other offenders, the Saudi authorities do not imprison so many people for religious offenses and do not treat them so brutally.
The administration has a choice between 15 possible policy responses, eight diplomatic and seven economic, but in practice it has never taken action against offenders.
The report said Afghanistan, where the United States helped overthrow the Taliban last year, was the only country where there was a "significant improvement" in the protection and promotion of religious freedom.
The Taliban, who ruled some 90 percent of the country from 1996, persecuted non-Muslims and Muslims who did not accept their strict interpretation of Islam.
"The new interim government has publicly stated a policy of religious tolerance. In the post-Taliban environment, religious minorities such as Shi'a, Hindus and Sikhs have all reported tolerance of their presence and practice," the report said.
In Egypt, it said, there was a continued trend toward improvement in respect for religious freedom.
"There was a significant increase in public intercommunal dialogue, as well as in press and public discussion of intercommunal relations," it said.
In Laos, despite its poor record overall, the State Department reported a decrease in the religiously motivated arrests and forced renunciations of Christianity.
"Although authorities continued to close some Protestant churches in several provinces, the number of church closings was fewer than in the period covered by the previous report. In the beginning of 2002, authorities allowed some of these closed churches to reopen," it added.
The report found improvements in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia and removed Romania from a list of countries with legislation or policies that discriminate against certain religions.
On Bulgaria, it noted that the prime minister personally ordered the registration of one church, that parliament refrained from passing a new law regulating religious denominations and that restrictive municipal ordinances were not enforced due to pressure from the central government.
In Yugoslavia, the police response to crimes against religious minorities improved, and the Belgrade Municipal Court agreed to try an anti-Semitic hate speech case, it added.
Two countries where the United States found a slight deterioration were Georgia and Bangladesh.
India, where more than 900 Muslims were killed in the western state of Gujarat in February and March, is among eight countries where the governments allegedly neglect discrimination and persecution -- along with Bangladesh, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Guatemala, Indonesia and Nigeria.
The report also cites Brunei, Eritrea, Israel, Jordan, Malaysia, Moldova, Russia and Turkey as countries which have discriminatory legislation or policies.
The report, as last year, criticized Belgium, France and Germany for restrictions on groups such as Scientologists, which the governments there call cults or sects.