The latest annual report by the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom names 13 countries as serious violators of religious freedom. The commission expresses concern about increasing extremism in many countries, including sharp criticism for Pakistan, saying extremism poses a particular threat to religious freedom.
The 13 countries named as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) in this year's report are Burma, North Korea, China, Vietnam, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
According to the report, countries in this category are those where governments engaged in or tolerated particularly severe, meaning systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.
On the "watch list" are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.
Commission head Felice Gaer voiced a key concern of the commission. "A key focus of the commission during this reporting period is the threat that religious extremism poses to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief worldwide, and to global and regional security," Gaer said.
On Pakistan, Gaer said while government leaders "acquiesced" to the rule of Taliban-associated extremists in some regions, members of civil society, particularly women, have courageously objected.
Commission member Elizabeth Prodromou says the situation in Pakistan, a CPC country since 2002, has worsened because of the "largely unchecked growth" of Taliban-associated extremist groups:
"Pakistan's central government in Islamabad has ceded effective control of more and more of the country to these Taliban-associated extremist groups, notably of course, in the Swat Valley and its neighboring districts. At the same time, sectarian and religiously motivated violence continues apace. Particularly acute are violations against Shia Muslims, Amhadis, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs," she said.
Among the most serious violators of religious freedom, Michael Cromartie said, there was unanimous agreement on North Korea. "The only thing to be said about North Korea is that it is the worst violator of religious freedom rights anywhere in the world. It has not improved [and] it has gotten worse," he said.
Violations in North Korea include beatings, imprisonment and brutality as well as executions, including severe punishment for those who flee to China but are sent back to North Korea.
While China used the 2008 Olympics to showcase its growth and power, the commission says that power was also used to suppress dissent and place severe new restrictions on peaceful religious activities of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.
In Vietnam, the commission cites some positive developments, but says serious abuses and restrictions continue. These include imprisonment and detentions of individuals for advocating religious freedom, and a continuing formal ban on independent religious activity.
In the Middle East, commission member Richard Land summarized worsening conditions for many minorities in Iran."Government rhetoric and action worsened conditions for nearly all non-Shia religious groups, most notably for the Bahais, as well as Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians and members of the Jewish community," he said.
The commission singles out for criticism a 2008 Iranian government decision to institute a penal code the report says could threaten members of many religious and minority communities with the death penalty.
In Saudi Arabia, the commission says despite some limited reforms, the government continues to interfere with private religious practice, and arrested, detained and jailed Shia Muslim dissidents and Ismaili Muslims.
Gaer explains why the commission wants the U.S. State Department to end its waiver keeping Saudi Arabia off the official U.S. list of religious violators.
"Promises and commitments confirmed to the U.S. in 2006 continue to remain unfulfilled in Saudi Arabia. The anticipated reform of Saudi school textbooks appears to be incomplete. Reports indicate that material that incites violence and fuels extreme religious intolerance remains. The government continues to be involved in supporting activities globally that promote an extremist ideology and in some cases violence against non-Muslims and dis-favored Muslims," Gaer said,
On Iraq, the commission reiterates concerns about government tolerance of severe abuses and targeted intimidation and violence against smallest and most vulnerable minorities.
In Africa, commission member Leonard Leo says a recent commission visit confirmed that the government tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations.
"There have been years of inaction by the Nigerian government to bring the perpetrators of religious violence to justice. Several hundred to 3,000 deaths in the city of Jos last year. Numerous killings in Kaduna, Kano, Yolwa. Over 10,000 people, at least 10,000, people displaced over the past several years all because of sectarian and communal violence."
Among countries on the watch list, the commission says the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sometimes tolerated and sometimes took action against the Jewish and Catholic communities.
Commission member Imam Talal Eid says the Venezuelan government and media have helped create a hostile environment. "Actions by President Chavez and other government officials have created an environment where Jewish and Catholic religious leaders and institutions are at risk of attack. Furthermore, the Venezuelan government has failed to take adequate measure to hold perpetrators accountable for attacks on Jewish and Catholic leaders and institutions," he said.
In its report, the commission says it is concerned that after 10 years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the State Department has not implemented key provisions of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.