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Eleven Countries Accused of Violating Religious Freedom

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is highlighting 11 countries as having the worst records on allowing and protecting religious freedom. The findings come in the congressionally mandated group's annual report for 2006. The agency's findings and recommendations go to the White House, the State Department and to Capitol Hill.

The 2006 list of the world's worst violators of religious freedom includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Vietnam, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Richard Land, a member of the Commission, said a delegation visited China in August 2005, after three years of diplomatic efforts by the U.S. government.

"The Commission found that religious freedom conditions in China continue to be poor. Chinese government officials control, monitor and restrain the activities of all religious communities, specifically targeting unregistered and illegal groups, such as the Uighur Muslims, house church Protestants, unregistered Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists and practitioners of Falun Gong," said Land.

Phuntsog Nyidron, a Tibetan nun who spent 15 years in Chinese prisons, told reporters she has first-hand experience of religious restrictions in Tibet, a remote Himalayan region that is within Chinese borders.

"Even though monasteries and nunneries are supposed to be places for the study of religious philosophy, in Tibet, what we see is these monasteries and nunneries are administered and governed by an officially appointed committee," noted Phuntsog Nyidron.

The 34-year-old Tibetan nun was allowed to leave Tibet in March, shortly before Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the United States.

Meanwhile, Nina Shea, another member of the Commission, called on the U.S. government to take action against Saudi Arabia, a country which the State Department named as a so-called country of particular concern in its annual religious freedom report in November 2005.

"Since religious freedom conditions in Saudi Arabia have not substantially improved in the last year, the U.S. government must not hesitate in taking aggressive action to demonstrate that it will not disregard the persistent and egregious religious freedom violations committed by the Saudi government," she said.

Shea noted that a waiver period Washington initially granted to Riyadh, which allowed the two sides to discuss the issue, has expired. She also urged that any agreement reached between the U.S. and Saudi governments be made public.

Meanwhile, although neither Afghanistan nor Iraq were at the top of the list, the Commission said both countries merit special mention.

Commissioner Preeta Bansal said Afghanistan has been added to the group's watch list, which is made up of countries where the Commission has concerns about the future of religious freedom.

"The principal concern of the Commission consists of flaws in the country's new Constitution," she said. "The Constitution does not contain clear protections for the right of freedom of religion or belief for individual Afghan citizens."

As an example, she pointed to the recent high-profile case of Abdur Rahman, an Afghan citizen who was threatened with the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity.

On Iraq, Commissioner Richard Land described a "grave escalation" of sectarian violence there. He said as the U.S. government helps with Iraq's political reconstruction, it has what he called a "special obligation" to take steps to help strengthen and ensure protection of Iraqi rights.