A U.S. State Department report said Friday that political violence in Iraq has significantly impaired religious freedom there. But the annual world-wide survey cited improvements in conditions for religious adherents in, among other places, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The annual report, which this year covered 198 countries and territories, is required under an act of Congress, and countries found to be significant violators of religious freedom are subject to U.S. sanctions.
Introducing the 2007 edition at a news conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said religious liberty is deeply rooted in American history and integral to U.S. efforts to combat what she said is the ideology of hatred and religious intolerance that fuels global terrorism.
"This past Tuesday was the sixth anniversary of the September 11th attacks," said Rice. "As we reflect on the tragedy of that day, we are reminded of the true importance of this report and we reaffirm our commitment to help us shed light on all countries where citizens are subjected to government censorship, hate crimes discrimination and violence for their thoughts and beliefs."
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom John Hanford said the past year saw progress against religion-based discrimination in a diverse list of countries including Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh and India.
But he said half the world's population continues to live under persecution or serious restrictions of religious freedom in many countries, among them Iran, Eritrea, Burma and China.
The report says conditions deteriorated sharply in Iraq though Hanford said that was not due to government policy but rather insurgency-related violence targeting all faiths but especially religious minorities.
"For the most part people are getting caught in the cross-fire in the case of these minorities, though there have been cases where it's clear certain groups have been targeted," said Hanford. "The real problem that we're dealing with is that with the sectarian violence, not necessarily focused upon religious practice, that at the same time religious practice winds up being affected."
Hanford stressed continued progress in expanding religious freedom in Vietnam, which last year was taken off the State Department list of "Countries of Particular Concern" because of strides made in several areas, including the official recognition of once-banned Protestant congregations.
The U.S. envoy said the Saudi Arabian government, which officially recognizes only the Wahabi branch of Sunni Islam, has undertaken to curb incitement against other faiths and allows at least private observances of non-sanctioned religions.
"This has to do with, for example, reining-in the Mutaween, the religious police, from raiding religious gatherings," said Hanford. "To a large extent the government has been successful in stopping this practice."
"The government has guaranteed the right to private worship for people of minority faiths, and on any given week, you've got an enormous number of Christians and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists who are meeting and freely practicing in homes and places like that, without harassment. This is an improvement," he added.
The report says despite senior-level U.S. appeals, China continued to repress Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and the Falon Gong spiritual group.
Ambassador Hanford said foreign religious activists have also been denied visas or expelled from China in what could be a crackdown related to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"The fear of many is that the government is wanting these Westerners out of the country, that their goal is to crack down on any chance that there might be protests in the run-up to the Olympics," said Hanford. "And our hope is that the government will take the opportunity of the Olympics, and the worldwide spotlight that will be shown, to respect religious citizens and their practice rather than to repress it."
Eight countries - China, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan - were designated as "Countries of Particular Concern" by Secretary Rice late last year.
A revised list is expected to be issued in November based on the new report. The delay is intended to give countries facing the designation and possible U.S. sanctions an opportunity to undertake reforms.