Freedom of religion scarce in Iran, China

Saudi Arabia in list of 8 nations ‘of particular concern’

Egypt generally failed to prevent, investigate, or prosecute crimes against members of religious minorities, including Coptic Christians

By Guy Taylor 

Declaring that “freedom of religion is a core American value,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry Monday released his department’s annual worldwide religious freedom report, which found “worrying” and “negative trends” around the globe.

“The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith, to believe or not to believe, or to change one’s beliefs, that is a birthright of every human being, and that’s what we believe,” Mr. Kerry told reporters in Washington, in remarks accompanying the release of the “International Religious Freedom Report for 2012.”

While the report pointed to some examples of progress toward religious tolerance, its main focus was on persecution and abuses carried about by authorities in nearly every corner of the globe. Eight nations officially listed by the U.S. government as “Countries of Particular Concern” are highlighted for having played host to “severe violations” to religious freedom during 2012: Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

The same eight countries made the “particular concern” list in the State Department’s 2011 report. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook told reporters that the findings are built on a year-by-year evaluation of the different religious landscapes in individual nations — as well as the evolving postures of different governments.

“There are some governments that are not moving whatsoever,” said Mrs. Johnson Cook, who joined Mr. Kerry in releasing the report at Foggy Bottom. The Saudi government, she said, does not “allow non-Islamic persons to have freedom of religion.”

According to the report’s executive summary, authorities in Saudi Arabia even beheaded at least one individual for engaging in “sorcery” in 2012.

Despite “considerable political reforms” in Myanmar, meanwhile, the report’s summary cited local government participation “in ethnic and religious violence” against the Southeast Asian nation’s Muslim community. The report was released the day President Obama hosted Myanmar President Thein Sein at the White House.

And in China, “the government’s respect for religious freedom declined during” the year, according to the summary, which cited harassment and detention of individuals in the mainly Muslim Uighur Autonomous Region of northwest China and, as well in the Buddhist Tibetan area.

Negative trends were also cited in the Middle East, where — in addition to Saudi Arabia — some governments were showing little or no tolerance for non-Muslims.

In Egypt, for instance, where the Muslim Brotherhood religious and political movement has taken power after the nation’s recent revolution, the “government generally failed to prevent, investigate, or prosecute crimes against members of religious minorities, including Coptic Christians,” the report’s summary said.

The report “also documents a continued global increase in anti-Semitism,” which cited “expressions of anti-Semitism by government officials, by religious leaders, and by the media, particularly in Venezuela, Egypt and Iran.”

Russia was one of a number of countries cited for the use of dubious legal tools to crack down on religious minorities.

The State Department drew criticism, meanwhile, from at least one Republican lawmaker unsatisfied with the report’s findings.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Edward R. Royce, California Republican, voiced frustration over Vietnam not being placed on the official “Countries of Particular Concern” list. Vietnam had been on the list in 2004 and 2005, but was removed in 2006.

While the summary of the 2012 report cites Vietnam’s government for continuing to “imprison individuals for their religious beliefs,” Mr. Royce felt the language was too soft.