A State Department report is citing eight countries including Iran, China and Saudi Arabia as major violators of religious freedom. Turkey and Pakistan, among others, were praised for efforts to ease conditions for religious minorities.
The 1998 act of Congress that mandates the annual religious freedom reports provides for no severe penalties against countries that limit religious freedom.
But at a roll-out event for the new report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the yearly exercise is a key element of U.S. foreign policy, and that religious tolerance is essential for sustainable democracy and peaceful societies. “People who have a voice in how they are governed, no matter what their identity, ethnicity of religion, are more likely to have a stake in both their government’s and their society’s success," she noted. "That is good for stability, for American national security and for global security.”
The new report cites the same eight countries as last year as the most severe violators of religious freedom, the so-called “countries of particular concern.”
They are Burma, China and North Korea in Asia, Iran and Uzbekistan, U.S. Middle East ally Saudi Arabia, and neighboring African countries Sudan and Eritrea.
Clinton said Iranian authorities continue to repress evangelical Christians, Jews, Bahai’s, and non-Shia Muslims.
But she said that in the region, not all the threats are government-inspired, citing this week’s killing of 22 Shia pilgrims by extremists in Iraq.
She said respecting religious diversity will be key to the long-term success of new governments in the Middle East and North Africa that are taking shape in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” unrest.
“The people of the region have taken exciting first steps toward democracy. But if they hope to consolidate their gains, they cannot trade one form of repression for another,” Clinton explained.
The secretary applauded the Turkish government’s recent decree allowing non-Muslims to reclaim churches and synagogues confiscated by the government 75 years ago, and a decision striking down a ban on the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women college students.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner welcomed Pakistani government actions after the assassination of two prominent opponents of a controversial blasphemy law, including creation of a Ministry of National Harmony to protect religious minorities.
But he lamented recent government moves against non-sanctioned religious groups in China, which he said are part of a general deterioration of human-rights conditions there since early this year.
“We have concerns about the Uighur community and restrictions on Muslim religion. We have concerns about the Tibetan community - the Kirti monastery where 300 (Buddhist) monks were taken from their monastery and detained. So there is a broader pattern of religious and other persecution that is part of a broader human rights problem," Posner said.
Posner said the United States will continue to speak out in international forums against curbs on religious practice in Iran and North Korea, countries with which the United States has no diplomatic relations.
He said such action reinforces activists in those countries, who understand and know that the United States is “listening and paying attention.”